Twin challenges, separate lives

Twin challenges, separate lives

Louisa Walters speaks to an observant family who are sending their twin boys to two very different schools

Louisa Walters is a features writer

Ethan and Oliver Green are non-identical twin boys aged 12. Together with their parents, Lorna and Jerry, and sister, Natalie, they attend shul every Shabbat and chag. Lorna sits on the shul board and the kids have grown up within a tight-knit community. It is very important to Lorna and Jerry that they are all engaged with their Judaism. 

Yet when it came to their secondary schooling, Lorna and Jerry chose very different establishments for their twin boys. Ethan goes to Immanuel College and Oliver attends Portland Place, a small, nurturing school in central London that caters for a wide range of abilities and learning styles.

They are fraternal twins rather than identical and even when they were born, Lorna and Jerry tried hard to see them as two individuals – less as twins and more as brothers of the same age. “We made sure not to dress them the same. It was hard enough for the world to see them as separate children, so if you dress them the same, you encourage people to see them as one unit,” explains Lorna.

The boys are very different. Ethan is a team player – friendly, funny, loves to play football and cricket, Fortnite and Fifa. His favourite food is pizza or steak. Oliver is more of an individualist – he loves magic, making films, doing karate and water sports. His favourite food is sushi or fish fingers. Yet they’ve grown up with the same values, in the same home, with the same parents and sister, so that shapes them in similar ways.

The boys attended the synagogue nursery for 18 months, and all three children spent most of their primary school years at North West London Jewish Day School, an Orthodox Jewish school.  The boys’ first year at school was spent together in their one-form nursery but, once there were two classes, their parents chose to separate them.

“From their earliest infancy, the differences in the way they interacted with the world could be seen,” says Lorna. “Inevitably when there are two children of the same age, one learns to crawl first, one to hold a toy first, one to draw first, one to walk first. That was the crude blueprint for their educational development, and also flagged up that when there are two children together in a ‘twin-ship’, people inevitably compare them.

“How would it feel to be the kid who is less good/clever/vocal/confident/skilled?” says Lorna. “We feel that this slow, gradual separation worked well for them both.”

For the last two years of primary school, they went to Heathside, a very small, secular school, so that they would both benefit from a more individual-focused academic education, albeit in separate classes. The boys had different experiences of school life, with Oliver finding academic life more of a struggle, especially in a large class.

“It was always on the cards to send them to different secondary schools,” says Lorna. “One reason was academic suitability, but more than that, Ethan was desperate to strike out on his own and not be known as his brother’s twin or to have any sense of responsibility for him.

“They both got in to Immanuel College and although we felt it was right for Ethan, we weren’t so sure about Oliver. We listened to both the boys’ opinions on which kind of school they felt comfortable with, and what they thought about each other’s choices too. They didn’t ask to be at the same school, but we certainly would have considered this if they had.”

They decided to keep Oliver at Heathside High for Year 7, as he was very happy there and was excelling. But then the school went through a transition, and they wanted to maintain his obvious progress in a school that offers small class sizes and individual attention.

“We moved him to Portland Place, which has great teaching while capitalising on the skills and interests of each child,” says Lorna.

So one twin is at an Orthodox Jewish secondary school, and the other is not. Their sister also attends a non-Jewish school.

“The crucial aspect of our commitment to Judaism is a combination of practice and knowledge,” says Jerry. “The former comes from the home, not a school and, as an observant family, the practical application of Judaism is something we live with on a daily basis and our children therefore experience rather than just learn about.

“Knowledge is formed by practice, but also by learning, which we supplement with lessons at home for our two children who attend secular schools. Our daughter has continued learning at a high level in a group with friends all through her teens post-batmitzvah and intends to continue to do so. Lorna and I continue learning in a range of ways, so a lifelong combination of practice and learning is something that is a lived Jewish experience for our children, beyond the boundaries of the school gates and curriculum.

“What is crucial for us is not just that our children have a strong Jewish education, but also what kind of Jews they will be – proud, knowledgeable, connected, committed both to the practice of, and learning about, their heritage, and also engaged in the outside world, with a strong compatibility between their secular and religious selves. We have made a judgement that that goal can be achieved while also attending secular schools.”

Since attending different schools, the boys have become more independent. “It’s challenging for each of them not to have the other around if they’re having a hard day, but that’s something they need to learn in life,” says Lorna. “They look for each other when they get back from school and will tell the other about their day if it’s been a bit tricky, or particularly fun.”

The boys are now approaching their b’nei mitzvah, which presents twin challenges of its own!

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