Twin Paths to the Top 10
by Maureen A. Nolan
When class rankings came out after their first year at Hamilton, other students asked Kateri Boucher what it felt like to have such a smart twin. She had an appropriately pointed response — “Ask Jonah.” At that time her brother was number one in the Class of 2017, and she was somewhere around number nine.
By then the Bouchers had years of practice at being among the top students at the same school. In high school they’d often taken the same AP course at the same time. They’d fended off plenty of questions and comments — some teasing, some clueless — that presumed a heated sibling rivalry.
Actually, with judicious parenting and their grounded perspectives, the brother and sister kept academic competition between them to a minimum over the years. As the only children in their family, they are close yet independent. “I always described it like we’re not best friends, but we get along great,” Jonah says.
They didn’t advertise their relationship. It was a couple of years before any professors knew they were siblings.
Still, a degree of rivalry was unavoidable. In their junior year of high school in Rochester, N.Y., Kateri and Jonah had three courses together and were both preparing for the SAT and AP exams, playing Ultimate Frisbee and taking driver’s education. That was a lot of togetherness, and Kateri began to feel as if she were directly competing with her brother.
With that realization, she went to work on how to be proud of herself and to see herself and her brother as individuals rather than competitors. That was a turning point. Since then, and especially in the last couple of years at Hamilton, Kateri says it’s been easy for her to see each of them doing well in their own fields and in their own ways.
The twins hadn’t planned to attend the same college, but when Hamilton emerged as a serious contender on both of their lists, they agreed that if they both were to choose to spend the next four years on College Hill, it would be OK. And it was. They graduated in May and as top students in their class, plus they still get along — maybe even better than before.
They found their own niches on the Hill with the unspoken understanding that at first they’d be better off going their own ways. Divergent academic interests helped with that. Jonah majored in math and environmental studies, Kateri in sociology, so their classrooms were on opposite sides of campus — his home base was the Science Center; hers was Kirner-Johnson.
They steamed along on parallel, productive tracks. Kateri received a summer research grant for a project titled “More than Agriculture: An Exploration of Urban Farms as Sites of Holistic Community Development.” Jonah got a grant to do summer research analyzing chemical and microbiological properties of a meromictic lake near Hamilton. He studied abroad in Costa Rica, Kateri in Ecuador.
Hamilton was the small school they’d wanted with the space to be themselves. As a tour guide, Jonah would use his twin to illustrate a point: The College was big enough for him to go a week without seeing his sis, but he still had easy access. They regularly reunited for Ultimate Frisbee and were co-captains of their respective teams.
“Early on, especially,” says Jonah, “we were able to have our different paths but then use each other as a resource. So between the two of us we were able to cover a lot of ground. I feel like I got to know more people because I had her to work through, and I feel like we covered a lot of campus. So I learned a little more about Hamilton and opened a few more doors that I wouldn’t have.”
They didn’t advertise their relationship. It was a couple of years before any professors knew they were siblings. But side-by-side, if you could catch them side-by-side, the resemblance is clear: coloring, eyes, nose, smile. Jonah is 6'1" and Kateri is 5'4", but they look like brother and sister.
After all their joint courses in high school, it didn’t occur to them until junior year at Hamilton that they’d never shared one as college students, and they decided that might be fun. Jonah tried to talk Kateri into a science course, and he suggested meteorology. (He claims she thought it was the study of rocks, but Kateri says she doesn’t remember that part of the story.) In the end, they never managed to coordinate a course, but they each took separate courses with Associate Professor of Philosophy Katheryn Doran.
Doran had Kateri in class her first semester at Hamilton and Jonah during his last, and says both students made teaching at Hamilton a joy. In Doran’s view, they did an extraordinary job of creating “completely distinct, positive and interesting identities” on Hamilton’s small campus. “I made it a point when I had Jonah in class this semester, and when talking to Kateri at catch-up lunches or coffee, never to mention the other, which would have struck me as something like a violation of the other’s privacy,” Doran recalled. “I think I might have slipped up once when talking to Kateri last semester when I couldn’t resist remarking on Jonah’s quiet brilliance, to which, seriously, what is she going to reply?”
Kateri, she says, is a terrific writer with a big spirit, unafraid to ask hard questions and follow the answers to their logical conclusions. She was the advisor for Kateri’s summer research project, which Doran says was terrific. “I am confident she will have a very successful and examined life with work that will have an impact on her many communities,” Doran says.
As their senior year unfolded, the Bouchers knew they’d be near or at the top of the class. Rankings were announced at a meeting in the Chapel during Senior Week, and Kateri and Jonah happened to walk in together and sit next to one another.
Kateri assumed that she had done very well and that Jonah would be valedictorian. The countdown from 10 began, and Kateri came in at number four. When she heard that Jonah was tied for valedictorian, she was happy with her own success and full of pride for his. She knew how hard Jonah had worked to maintain a healthy balance of academic success and the more social elements of college life.
“It wasn’t until sophomore year at Hamilton that I remember starting to think more critically and consistently about how to value academics, extracurriculars, relationships and how they affected my well being,” Jonah says. Kateri was one of many friends who helped him learn to give less weight to his academic performance and more to what he says is more holistic learning and growth.
By senior year Jonah was enjoying life in and outside the classroom. And people now recognize Jonah for the “super fun” person that he is, Kateri says with satisfaction. “What people are going to remember him for is being an amazing friend and presence on campus. It’s great how much he was able to grow,” she says.
People have asked Jonah if he felt badly ranking higher than Kateri. “I don’t know if she got these questions,” he says, “but my response was she didn’t care at all because she knew she had way more fun at Hamilton. I think maybe I paid my dues, and she took a smarter path to the top. If you know the two of us well, none of our close friends had to ask that question.”
Since graduation, for the first time, Jonah and Kateri live in different places, following separate paths with similar aspirations.
Kateri is working as a community organizer at Neighbor to Neighbor, a Boston-based nonprofit that addresses income inequality, racism and environmental degradation. She sees herself going to graduate school, but not for years. First she wants to explore work that helps her discover what she’d like to study. It might be sociology, which she loves, but maybe not.
Jonah is in Chicago working as a math and science coach in an AmeriCorps-funded job at the Schuler Scholar Program, which helps students with potential gain access to college. His plan is to enroll in graduate school, and he thinks the job will help him figure out precisely what he wants to study. He may go into math education, but he’s leaving many doors open.
Each of them says in different ways that being at Hamilton together was a good thing.
“I think it’s going to be really wonderful in the future to have so many shared connections and relationships with him, and I think it will keep us close even when we go to different places, like this coming year,” Kateri observed about her brother shortly after graduation.
Jonah’s take: “It was a really valuable experience, great for our sibling relationship, a lot of fun.”