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How I stepped out of my twin brother's shadow

JOREN CULL/The Globe and Mail

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'No. 2, incorrect." The judge had ruled against my response. My mind was spinning out of control, like a globe knocked off its axis.

I had put so much effort into preparing for this momentous day, when I could prove to myself that I wasn't second best, and to my parents that, for once, I could do something my brother couldn't. For once, I was going to bask in success while my envious twin looked on. I'd develop the same swagger as John Wayne, only without the itchy neckerchief and leather chaps. For once … "No. 2, you're out of time. The correct answer was Lesotho."

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At every incorrect response, my brother grinned mercilessly. All I could think was: "What a jerk!" With my family watching intently, I tried not to succumb to the pressure. But it was too much to bear.

One snowy morning last winter, I followed my brother as he plowed forcefully through the icy banks on the way to school. The principal, Mr. B, was holding the door. As I stomped my boots on the mat, I caught sight of a sign reading: Geography Challenge today.

I'm not sure what I was thinking, but I valiantly told Mr. B about my enriched geography knowledge. My brother just stood there in silence.

Ever since I can remember, my parents, teachers and friends have compared my brother and me. From teachers getting our names mixed up to my parents getting our names mixed up, being a twin can create enormous frustration and anxiety.

Come report-card time, our marks are stacked against each other. Slight variations in our grades always lead to the same conclusion – that one is "better" than the other. I dread being in the same class. I've had teachers who, as they handed back an assignment, would insensitively announce: "I hate to burst your bubble, Nathan, but your brother did slightly better."

The day after the school quiz, I scurried to the foyer to check the standings. My name was at the top. Thank goodness, or I would have had some explaining to do. To my surprise, I passed an additional online test, which catapulted me into the provincials faster than a North Korean projectile.

Mr. B liked my confidence, but warned me I'd face stiff competition in the provincial round.

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After weeks examining every page of my world atlas, I was more than prepared for the big day. I was worried I might have overdone it. Over-preparation is a guaranteed precursor of failure: If you study too much, you lose sight of the obvious. Take my brother: With five years of spelling-bee experience behind him, he lost on the word "effortlessly." He has since warned me to erase the word from my lexicon, but I've decided to keep it.

I set three different alarm clocks to 7:15 to make sure I didn't sleep in. In the car, my parents gave me a football-like pep talk, only without the profanity. My mind raced with bouts of fear and scintillation. When I peered over, I noticed my brother leaning his face against the window, showing incriminating signs of despair and envy. What a jerk! To think I felt sorry for him when he misspelled "effortlessly."

When we arrived, we were welcomed with an overflowing basket of stale raisin muffins. I stuffed my face. A volunteer refilled the muffin basket and stared gently into my eyes. Then she turned to my brother, examined his facial configuration and asked if we were brothers. As I opened my mouth to answer, my mother jumped in and, with profuse pride, delivered her most overused phrase: "They're twins!"

I'm convinced that parents of twins develop into identity thieves. At infancy, our individuality is snatched and never returned. It's not that they want us to look and feel identical, they just can't help making a fuss over our sameness. When normal teens mature, they discover and utilize their independence. Twins do not. As we search for liberty, we are forced to endure extra road bumps.

The day the optometrist broke the news that I had to wear glasses was the most traumatic of my life. My brother had begun wearing glassware eight years before me. Like Groucho's greasepaint mustache, his glasses were his distinguishing accessory. I didn't want my last sign of individuality to vanish. Were we nothing more than two landlocked countries, dependent on each other's existence?

Before the competition started, I stumbled into the washroom to regain my composure. My stomach was growling louder than that of a Galapagos penguin lost in the Sahara. The stress and the muffin were eating me alive. As if watching a 1980s motivational tape, I fixed a determined gaze on the man in the mirror. Great, I thought. I forgot my glasses.

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"No. 2, incorrect."

I'd lost. I'd made too many mistakes. On the drive home, I asked my brother why he kept laughing. He replied, "Because I felt your pain."

In hindsight, I believe him. Though at first I thought he was being a jerk, I realize now that he wasn't smiling to mock my mistakes or bask in my failure, but to contrast the frown that was on my face. While any outsider can see our similarity, only my twin brother can understand how much I crave to be different. As long as we keep disagreeing, we will never be totally alike.

Nathan Brandwein lives in Toronto.

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