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Profile: From the nanny’s girl to a celebrated teacher

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Jenifer Maxson wearing her grandson’s puréed mango, banana and oatmeal with style.

Jenifer Maxson wearing her grandson’s puréed mango, banana and oatmeal with style.

A nanny brought Jenifer Eklund to Shelter Island in 1948.

Six decades later, her name is Jenifer Maxson and she’s got banana and mango in her hair. And a little oatmeal. She’s just returned from hanging out with a messy eater — her 10-month-old grandson Marco ­— and she’s ready to tell it like it is. “Full disclosure is my middle name.”

For 17 years, Jenifer Corwin (as she was known) taught English and ran the drama program at the Shelter Island School. Many of the seniors graduating this week were her students. And for many of them she was an unforgettable teacher.

Jenifer grew up on Long Island with two working parents, a relative rarity at the time. When the Eklund family’s nanny “Aunt Jen” announced that she would be spending the summer at her family’s home on Shelter Island, Jenifer’s parents decided quickly that they should follow suit.

For years the family spent summers on Shelter Island in a big Dutch Colonial house in Silver Beach, “living beyond our means,” Jenifer said. “It meant summer to me. It was the last place on earth I envisioned myself living.”

She spent some time at Hofstra, without getting a degree, did some acting, got married, had two daughters, Johanna and Karena, got divorced, lived in Connecticut and then Montclair, New Jersey. She went through a series of jobs as she struggled to raise her daughters as a single mother. Jenifer described that time as “a humpy, single parent kind of run.”

Her brother James had settled on Shelter Island and gotten married. In the early 80s, Jenifer found herself at his surprise birthday party at the Ram’s Head Inn, which her brother and sister-in-law Linda, had just bought.

It was a revelation.

“Shelter Island seemed simple and beautiful,” she said. “I had my childhood memories that suddenly became washed in a pink light, and I thought, my girls are getting older and they would be cozy and safe here. ”

In Montclair, her oldest daughter had been going into 7th grade. She was active in drama and theatre and unhappy at being moved away from friends and favorite activities. In 1984, Jenifer started a theatre program at the Shelter Island School, “all because of my daughter Johanna, who was about to leave home.”

She coerced Linda into being the producer. The first school production was “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay,” because Jenifer had done the play in high school and “it was the only one I knew.”

The theater program was a success, and within a few years, the town had financed and built a new auditorium for the school. Many memorable productions followed, from works by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde to musicals such as “Oliver,” “The Sound of Music,” “Guys and Dolls” — about 23 shows in all.

Meanwhile, Jenifer was finishing her college degree and working toward her teaching certificate because someone told her she should really be an English teacher.

When Lydia Axelrod, then Shelter Island School superintendent, hired her as a full-time English teacher in 1995, Jenifer remembers Ms. Axelrod telling her, “You will always be controversial.”

“Boy, was that prescient,” she said.

For four years, she taught advanced English classes at the school, finding creative ways to challenge and excite her students. For school credit on creativity, her students contacted local artists and interviewed them about their work. Which explains why one morning at 7 a.m., Billy Joel sat down for a breakfast interview at the counter in Carol’s Luncheonette.

As a middle-school English teacher, Jenifer was committed to getting students out of the classroom and into the community, encouraging them to explore and push themselves into the unfamiliar, and loudly advocating education “outside the box.” Her methods were unorthodox.

“There is so much juice in these kids … it’s malpractice the ways the tests are used. Students need to feel relevant to their own education. They are told to think out of the box, but then we put them in boxes.”

But not everyone agreed with her teaching methods. In 2006 she was suspended from teaching for two years as she fought a series of charges that were later withdrawn. By 2008, she was back in the classroom, teaching high school.

The next April she took 20 sophomores to the Manor House at Mashomack Preserve for an overnight writing workshop, “Writes of Spring,” that she developed. “I wanted to use Mashomack as a catalyst for writing.” The students kept journals, played trust games, wrote poetry and prepared meals together. It was a memorable experience for all and the “Writes of Spring” became an annual school event.

She retired from teaching in 2012.

But “retiring” is not a word you would ever use to describe Jenifer. Her recent projects include writing

“Coming of Age,” a one-woman show she staged twice at the Presbyterian Church. In 2012, she performed in a staged reading of “Love, Loss & What I Wore” by Nora and Delia Ephron, to a standing ovation. On August 29th, she’ll perform, “Red Hot Patriot” a one-woman show based on the life of Molly Ivins, as part of the Shelter Island Library’s Friday Night Dialogues.

In her personal life, Jenifer and husband Tom recently celebrated their first anniversary. They found each other 10 years ago on Match.com. She wasn’t sure about computer dating, but once they met, “It was like a petri dish.”

Why this burst of activity and creativity at a time when some would kick back and spend more time spooning mango and banana into the mouth of an adorable grandson? Because, Jenifer said, the Island won’t let her.

“This Island is a crucible. The beauty of it is relentless … if you don’t find an outlet it could crush you. You’ve got to tap into it. You’ve got to be productive.”