Their faces look similar and their voices are almost indistinguishable. But on paper, there is one thing that sets identical triplets Michelle, Cristal and Ana Cristina Lainez apart from each other: .01 point.
That’s the amount separating their grade-point averages, which are the three highest totals in their senior class at Wyandanch Memorial High School. Hoping to move beyond the “triplets” group label, the 17-year-old siblings have worked hard at forging their individuality in the classroom and among themselves.
“People see us as identical, and although we may physically look similar, we are really different and people confuse our personalities as being the same as one another and that’s just not true,” said Cristal, who describes herself as outgoing while Michelle is an introvert and Ana Cristina is somewhere between.
To both accommodate their individual personalities and distinguish themselves visually, the sisters several years ago began dying their hair: Michelle’s is red, Cristal’s is black and Ana Cristina’s is a dark shade of pink.
So intent on separating themselves from the pack, even the slightest infringement on another’s style can draw rebuke. One time when Ana Cristina changed her hair color and the result was just a little too close to the same shade of red that Michelle was sporting, the latter sister became angry.
“It was so similar,” Michelle said. “I was like, ‘Why? Just let me have this.”
This year, Wyandanch instituted a school uniform policy — blazers, cardigan sweaters and polo shirts in the school colors — much to Michelle’s chagrin.
“Clothing is another way for me to express myself,” she said. “Now it takes more work to distinguish ourselves.”
The trio have also developed slightly varied tastes in music, according to Cristal, who said she likes pop while Michelle leans more toward classical and rock and Ana Cristina toward punk and alternative rock. And while all three are artistically inclined, they each have interests in different mediums. Art teacher Joshua Rackoff said Michelle enjoys Japanese painting, while Cristal has developed an affinity for traditional sculpture and Ana Cristina leans more toward surrealism.
“It’s constantly annoying when people are saying, ‘Which one is which? You guys look so much alike,’ when we don’t see the similarities between us at all,” said Michelle. “It’s frustrating that they don’t understand each of us. It takes a while for them to figure it out.”
There was certainly a learning curve for their teachers. When they started high school, the sisters were often in the same classes.
“At first I didn’t realize they were triplets and I would see one and then another, and then another,” said Bruce Penn, digital technology teacher at the school.” I said, ‘How many of you are there?!’ ”
Spanish teacher Alejandra Fonseca didn’t fare much better, so her strategy was to enlist other students to give her hints on how to tell them apart, such as one having a mole or another having a rounder face. “I kept a cheat sheet on my desk,” Fonseca said.
Once they got to know the siblings, their teachers said the differences in their personalities also came into sharper focus.
“Cristal is more stern and professional, Michelle is more of a free spirit and Ana Cristina is right in the middle, with a little of both qualities,” said Rackoff.
Making their parents proud
The triplets were born at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip. Michelle is the oldest, by a minute, and Ana Cristina is the youngest, by two minutes. They have two older sisters, and a younger sister and brother.
All three point to two key factors in their academic success: their parents, Jose and Isidra, and the competition among each other.
“They never really put pressure on me,” Ana Cristina said of her father, who is from El Salvador, and her mother, who is from Guatemala. “I’ve always been a hard worker, but really I’m doing it for them to be proud of me.”
Their father is a mechanic who also works in a tool factory. Speaking in Spanish, he said he is proud of his daughters and all of their hard work. Ana Cristina said she hopes her success in school will one day allow her to be “able to provide for them to have a comfortable lifestyle.”
All three said their sibling rivalry began long before high school and motivates them to study harder.
“We’ve always wanted to outdo each other ever since we were little,” Cristal said. “You always need someone pushing you to your limit, and since I’ve got my two sisters, I’m always being pushed to my limit.”
With their competitive streak comes encouragement. “They’re my biggest competitors but they’re also my greatest supporters,” Ana Cristina said. “Their advice can be pretty brutal, but I know it’s true.”
Because of the novelty of being triplets, the sisters said they have often found themselves getting a kind of attention they would rather avoid. As a result, they had to be coaxed into taking on leadership roles, Penn said.
“They shied away from their success at first,” he said. “They didn’t want to be in the spotlight, they just wanted to blend in.”
Besides being consistently at or near the top of their class in grades, the sisters — who all name English as their favorite subject — have been part of student government, the yearbook committee, art club and the National Honor Society. They are taking college-level courses and volunteer in their spare time.
“They are what every teacher hopes for in their classroom,” said English teacher Juan Nieto. “They’re insightful, more than any other student I’ve encountered. Once they learn a new concept, they apply it to their lives.”
He said they are a blessing and a curse in the way they challenge educators.
“They hold teachers to a higher standard,” he said. “They make you work harder for them. I became a better teacher because of them.”
Awaiting final rankings
The siblings are awaiting final tabulations on grades, which will be completed later this month.
“The competition is pretty real right now,” Ana Cristina said.
Guidance department coordinator Dexter Ward said it is highly likely that the sisters will remain the top three in the class. Principal Paul Sibblies said Michelle, who would likely be class valedictorian, has told him she wants to share the stage and her accomplishment with both of her sisters.
“It’s going to be a unique position for myself,” he said, laughing. “It would be a first for us.”
He said the only question is what title to give the sister ranked third in the class.
For Cristal, Ana Cristina and Michelle, the question they’re grappling with involves where to attend college. True to form, they have three distinct preferences. All of them have applied to multiple schools, mostly local, but while Michelle wants to stay close to home at Stony Brook University, Cristal dreams of getting off Long Island and attending New York University. Ana Cristina wants to stay relatively close to her family, but isn’t sure whether she wants to live at home or on campus. Their oldest sister graduated from Suffolk County Community College and their next oldest sister is a student there.
All three said they haven’t mentally processed the idea that they may go separate ways for the first time in their lives.
“It would be weird,” Cristal said. “I’ve never been alone. Even if I didn’t have a friend, I had my sister.”