08 Nov Telling the Twins Apart

I’m teaching twins in my freshman seminar this semester. For the life of me, I can’t tell them apart. This is frustrating and embarrassing because I’ve always considered myself really good with faces. At the start of the semester, I told myself I’d get it figured out. I thought one maybe had a larger nose than her sister. But no. Then I thought one’s right or left earlobe might be different from the other’s. But no. Then I thought maybe something about their hands would distinguish them. But no.

In class, because they both raise their hands at the same time, I have it easy. I just call one name and have it figured out when either answers. But on occasion one twin will raise her hand before the other. Taking a gamble, I’ll call out X’s name. Then Y, with her hand up, will look suspiciously at her sister. Or vice versa. When that happens, I don’t blink. I just pretend that I’m calling on the one who hasn’t raised her hand — that’s just the kind of sneaky thing a teacher would do.

The maddening thing is, it seems the students have it figured out which is which. I don’t know how and I don’t have the nerve to ask any of them and this only makes me feel worse. I know I’m going to get caught at not knowing how to tell the twins apart before the semester is over in just one more month. I don’t want the embarrassment but, worse, I don’t want to hurt either twin’s feelings. Sure, they’re used to this from strangers and people who don’t know them well. But I’m their adviser. I see them almost every day.

Just last week, one of the twins came to see me about her paper. I couldn’t tell which one she is. They dress almost identically, even down to their jewelry. As the visiting twin talked about her paper, I said, “Let me pull it up” on my computer. But then I realized I didn’t know which twin I was talking to. And she was watching me at the computer screen, waiting for me to produce her paper.

For every 1,000 birth, 32 will be twins. Of those, only 2-3 will be monozygotic twins—those that are nearly impossible to tell apart. There has been a 74% increase in the number of twins since 1980. Only some of that (actually 17%) is due to the increase in fertility treatments. A recent study showed that American women who eat dairy products have a higher incidence of twins. Something to do with hormones in cows’ milk. The most popular names for girl twins in recent years: Faith and Hope, Emma and Ella, Madison and Morgan.

As a teacher, I see plenty of twins – because twins have become quite common — but I’ve never had two in the same class. When I was growing up, I rarely saw a twin. And I only heard of triplets through our Dick and Jane books in grade school. I remember my brother David telling me about the triplets chapter. We were amazed that such a thing as triplets existed. The triplets in the picture book were blond girls.

David, by the way, is eleven months my senior. My “Irish twin.” That humorous designation is actually an ethnic slur but still widely used, it seems. David and I look alike in many ways – you can tell we’re brothers. And when we were really young, we acted like twins, very much together all the time.

The twin watching me search for her paper on my computer showed no reaction when I pulled back from the screen without opening a document. I turned to her and subtly but frantically scanned her face for clues. Was this the smaller-nosed, creased-earlobed, thinner-fingered twin? And, if so, which name was hers? Such panic was as close as I’ve ever come to understanding what it feels to be an illiterate adult – there was the text before me, but I could not decipher it. And, worse, my ignorance would precipitate real and painful consequences.

Then I remembered that this twin had sent me an email about the office visit. All I had to do was scan my in-box and I’d see her name. I did this, then quickly pulled up her paper on the screen. What a relief to say her name at last! But I am not done, of course. Apparently I must resort to identifying each twin by distinguishing their jewelry. I’ll count rings or something.  I don’t like this. It feels like cheating. But I have to accept that sometimes a temporary patch is the best I can hope for in my attempts to cope with the nearly-impossible.