Alex colors his hair, so it's a bit more strawberry than Nick's dishwater blonde. When they were little, Alex dressed in red and Nick in blue. Nick is the loudest, Alex says, and Alex is more studious, says Nick.
But their smiles are exactly the same and it would be difficult to tell them apart over the phone.
The Johnson brothers are just one of the more than 50 sets of twins graduating from Snohomish County public high schools in June.
Being a twin these days is still different from the average experience, the Johnsons said. However, the incidence of twin births is growing.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released statistics that showed that the twin birth rate nationwide has risen 76 percent since 1980. In 2009, 1 in every 30 babies born in the United States was a twin, compared with 1 in every 53 babies in 1980, according to the CDC.
The Johnson twins, 17, are graduating from Lake Stevens High School where they have tutored younger students and participated in Hi-Q and Knowledge Bowl competitions. They lobbied the school board for an advanced placement government class, which they are taking this spring. The Johnsons have completed nine AP classes each. Both like science, "because it explains things."
Nick plans to attend Northeastern University in Boston to study science or law. Alex is a National Merit scholar with a near-perfect grade point average. He isn't sure where he is doing his undergraduate work, but he hopes to study to be a doctor at Johns Hopkins University.
The boys once fooled their second-grade teachers by attending each other's classes. Since then, they've been in most of the same classrooms together.
"We got all of the twins stuff out of our systems by the end of middle school. We're just brothers. We're not attached at the hip. There is no spooky, other-worldly connection to each other," Nick said. "We're competitive, but we're also from a family and a school that values education."
Alex and Nick salute their teachers for helping them to be successful.
"And our parents developed in us the drive and the will to succeed," Alex said. "They will miss us, though. Mom is already planning a trip to visit us at our colleges."
"And we'll miss each other, just as you would anybody you lived with for 18 years. But it'll also be a breath of fresh air," Nick said. "We're built to fly. It's part of who we are."
The brothers look at each other and smile -- the same smile at the same time.
* * *
One of the reasons for the increase in twins is more older moms are having kids, and they're more likely to have twins. Older moms account for about a third of the rise in twin births since 1980. During the past three decades, twin birth rates rose by nearly 100 percent among women aged 35 to 39 and more than 200 percent among women aged 40 and older, according the CDC.
Nancy Coombs was 34 when she and her husband, Charlie, had Courtney and Corey Coombs. The Coombs twins, 17, are graduating from Marysville Pilchuck High School.
Courtney and Corey represent a third of the valedictorians at their school, with perfect 4.0 grade point averages earned through six AP classes each and many seasons of sports -- tennis, soccer and swimming.
Corey said he and his sister have been competitive all their lives, and Courtney proudly proclaims that she was born first. Corey teases his sister because he scored 10 points higher on the SAT test. They laugh about taking turns when they were little to prove who could read Dr. Seuss books faster.
"In high school we realized we needed good grades for college," Corey said.
During this senior year, the twins have shared all six classes.
"It's fun to have a twin. We've shared a lot of late-night study sessions on the couch," Courtney said. "Corey is one of my best friends." And then she hugs him.
He is the senior class president, she is senior class secretary. They have volunteered with Special Olympics and at Cascade Valley Hospital.
"That's where we found our interest in medicine," Courtney said. "We're going for a pre-med program."
Next year, the Coombs siblings plan to attend the University of Washington and hope to live in the same dormitory. Their folks are likely to visit often.
"Our parents will drive us crazy at first," Corey said. "They have always pushed us to do well."
"I feel sorry for them. They will have an empty nest," Courtney said. "They've been very supportive, and they are proud of us."
The twins are excited about getting to vote for president in November. Courtney is backing Obama. Corey might vote for Romney.
Many people, when first meeting the Coombs kids, don't believe they are twins, Corey said.
They prove their "twinship" by playing "we can read each other's minds," Courtney said.
One twin whispers a word into the ear of the disbeliever and then the other twin "guesses" the word.
"The word is always 'garage,' " Corey said.
* * *
Along with older moms being more likely to have twins, the rate of multiple births in the country is up for another reason, said Dr. Nariman Heshmati, an obstetrician with the Everett Clinic.
Older moms also are more likely to have fertility problems.
The reason one sees a greater number of multiple births in the more well-to-do community of Mukilteo, for example, is that educated, affluent women tend to wait to have children and often pursue fertility treatments to get pregnant, Heshmati said.
Identical twins develop from a fertilized egg that divides, an event that continues to occur less frequently. Fraternal twins run in families with histories of twins. There is a genetic component to a hormone that releases more eggs. Twins born through in vitro fertilization are primarily fraternal, too, he said.
About 70 percent of the twins in Snohomish County are fraternal twins, but not every set of twins is well-to-do.
Antaeus and Austin Strand, 18, of Everett, are fraternal twins about to graduate from Kamiak High School. Antaeus is 6-feet-4 and Austin is 5-feet-11, and they just refer to each other as brothers.
Their single mom drives a school bus and tries to make ends meet. Recently the old car the twins share broke down and needed engine repair. They ended up carpooling with their mother, not an easy task with everyone going in different directions.
Austin works at the Ivar's restaurant on 41st Street in Everett and Antaeus is employed at the walk-up window at Ivar's at the Mukilteo ferry landing. Each works about 30 hours a week, including closing shifts.
Though they live in south Everett, the Strands were offered the chance to attend Kamiak to stay with their fellow students involved in the Summit academic program offered during middle school.
"We were raised to concentrate on school, and our mom is proud that she's kept us focused," Austin said. "I quit running cross country to make sure I stayed on top of school."
"Our mom has sacrificed a lot. We're the center of her attention," Antaeus said. "Austin got a job and then I did because we needed to help pay the bills. She didn't want us to have to work, but we're very thankful for the jobs, especially with so many people unemployed."
The Strand twins are set to receive some grants to attend the University of Washington where they plan to study engineering. Antaeus is interested in electrical engineering and Austin in aeronautical engineering. They hope to find jobs with Ivar's restaurants in Seattle and plan to live in adjoining dorms on campus.
"We were very close when we were little, we still share friends, but we are more independent now," Austin said.
"It's been tough sometimes, with no older brother or anybody to give advice," said Antaeus. "We go through the same stuff, sort of relying on each other."
The boys were competitive for many years, but less so now, they said. Tackling 10 or 11 AP classes each cured them of that, along with involvement in Key Club, Knowledge Bowl, Honor Society and a new science club at Kamiak called Future Ideas.
"We're more mature," Austin said. "We've had to grow up a lot faster than most of our friends. Holding down jobs and taking AP classes has taught us a lot of responsibility and time management. It helps that our teachers know we really want to be in school."
Along with their tough schedules, every other Monday after school the Strand twins volunteer at a local food bank, where they were once clients.
"One day I was waiting for the food bank to open and I thought 'why am I just sitting here?' So I went in and asked to help," Austin said.
"The older folks who volunteer at the food bank now call us 'the muscles,'" said Antaeus. "We're glad to help."
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Duos by district
The number of sets of twins scheduled to graduate from Snohomish County school districts:
Granite Falls: 1
Lake Stevens: 2
Mukilteo: 13, and one set of triplets
Snohomish: 5, and one set of triplets
Source: Snohomish County school districts
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