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Twin Titans of Stuyvesant High School

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By midweek, cracks are starting to show. With the college-application deadline looming, Jack has been running around town, trying to fetch and send out supplemental recommendations. We head to Entrepreneur Growth Capital, a commercial finance company where he had one of his two summer jobs (the other was at the Columbia neurology department) to meet his boss, Todd Sherer, who asks if I’m exhausted yet. (I am; the one day off I get from them, I sleep till 3 p.m.)

For the next 30 minutes, Jack hovers while Sherer prints the recommendations. “I’m so sorry, Todd,” he says, taking deep breaths. “Don’t worry,” says Sherer. “One day we’re going to be working for you. Better be nice to you now.” Envelopes in hand, Jack leaves the building in one direction, then realizes he’s gone the wrong way. “What do I want to do, what do I want to do, what do I want to do?” he says, to no one in particular.

We head to his dad’s house, where Jack asks a family friend to write out the college addresses in neat handwriting, then asks her to rewrite some because they’re not neat enough, then feels bad about saying they’re not neat enough.

When the last envelope is addressed, he curls up on the floor and eats spaghetti.

Minutes later he’s out the door; he has a test to study for and a date with ­FedEx. The family friend comes running after him with his MacBook power cord. “Oh my God, thank you!” he says. “You literally saved my life.”

The twins are staying late one day so their speech-and-debate team can get filmed for an episode of Take Me to Your Mother, a “docu-comedy” show for NickMom in which star Andrea Rosen tries to garner advice on how to raise her 2-year-old son as a decent human being. The takeaway of the episode will be that Rosen learns to value critical thinking through getting creamed in debate by high schoolers, and the Cahns have been chosen to be her first and most intimidating opponents.

The way they tell it, their “debate careers” almost weren’t. Most debate tournaments happen on Friday nights or Saturday during the day, conflicting directly with the Sabbath. Since they can’t use any transport other than walking, if those tournaments are out of the city, they often have to travel ahead of the team and find a local parent or rabbi who’s willing to put them up overnight; with their father’s encouragement, they’ve been making those arrangements themselves since they were 15˝. They also can’t “flow,” in debate parlance—take notes on their opponents’ case to refute it point by point—and had to spend a year and a half losing many debates they entered before learning how to do so in their heads.

Their very first debate tournament, when they were sophomores, was at Bronx Science on a Saturday. They walked there, ten miles from their father’s apartment. “Not fun,” says Jack.

“His feet were bleeding when we got there,” says David. “It was bad.”

Nearly an hour after they’d asked the kids to show up, the NickMom producers corral the team into the classroom to get miked up. “David?” a producer asks.

“Jack,” says Jack.

“When are we doing this?” asks David, seeming bemused and frustrated with the lack of time management on display. “We have a physics test tomorrow.”

The producers pull Jack and David aside. Jack was planning on reading a dense four-minute case on China’s economy they’d argued last year at a tournament at Harvard, but there’s no time. “Don’t you think it’s funny if he’s reading this crazy dense thing?” Rosen asks.

“If you want me to do it, I can do it for dramatic effect. I can read it quickly,” says Jack. “I’m a very intense case reader.”

Nearby, their teammates are gossiping about teachers, discussing necktie fashions, and playing something that looks like patty-cake on speed.

The producers usher the kids into the hallway, then film their dramatic entry, and the debate is on. Jack begins by citing a stat that links a decrease in the likelihood of war to increased U.S.-China economic interdependence. David jumps in: “We’ll also make the point that on net the United States benefited by gaining 1 million jobs and that for every job brought to China, the United States has gained 2.2 jobs, according to a study by Dartmouth.” Rosen’s jaw drops in exaggerated awe as the Cahns take turns citing statistics from Emory and The Economist.

The debate eventually moves to a “thought talk” on stress and whether there’s too much of it at Stuy, a topic the Cahns feel very strongly about. Jack even wrote an editorial called “Don’t Take My Stress Away,” railing against what he characterizes as the administration’s proposal to limit students to nine periods a day. “The problem is that a lot of students, like us, come here because we want to be stressed,” says David. “We want to be pushed to that academic limit to succeed, and policies that promote de-stressing, policies that aim at making us all happier, in the end reduce our opportunities.”

“If the school had its way, I would not be taking Chinese, because they proposed a policy that students shouldn’t take two languages,” says Jack. Then he and David both start speaking Chinese, then Spanish. “Each person has a different limit,” says Jack. “Don’t put a ceiling on my growth.”

Rosen interjects. “Let me ask you this: When’s the last time you guys just, like, blew off all your work, ordered a pizza, and watched, like, five hours of TV and then ate some ice cream, went for a walk, made a phone call to a girl?”

“You’re creating this dichotomy,” says Jack. “You’re saying you’re only really social if you have a girlfriend or pizza or ice cream. I hang out with friends, I eat pizza.”

“But when’s the last time you blew off a day and just chilled out for a whole day?” asks Rosen.

“We’re Sabbath observers, so every Saturday we take 24 hours off,” says David. “Every seven days, we have that 24 hours off. Maybe we don’t have any pizza, but you get that point.”

As the twins speak, the show’s executive producer keeps turning to me and whispering things like “Oh my God!” and “They may be the future co-presidents.”

I convey her thoughts to the Cahns later. “Well, one of us would have to live in New Jersey,” says David. “The president and vice-president can’t be residents of the same state.”

“We know,” says Jack, “because our history teacher told us.”


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