A very articulate 16-year old is sitting in a corner booth at The Islander talking about her life. It’s the height of lunch hour and just about everyone in the busy dining room knows who she is, where she lives, who her parents are, who she is eating lunch with, and why.
What’s weird is that Justine Karen is totally O.K. with it.
Actually, she revels in it. “Shelter Island may have given me a false sense of security,” Justine said. “I’m very comfortable. But I’m about to graduate, so I’m on the cusp of being very uncomfortable for a decade or so.”
She’s in the middle of deciding where she will spend the first part of her decade of discomfort. Hunter College and Brooklyn College are both strong possibilities. But she’s also applied to schools in Ireland and Scotland, such as The University of St. Andrews, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow and University College Dublin, where she has already been accepted.
Her interest in going to school overseas is partly fueled by her desire to study humanities and partly by a desire to travel. “I have a little bit of an impulsive streak,” she said. Justine was born in Brooklyn in May 2001, and when 9/11 happened a few months later, her parents, Reed and Kyle Karen decided they were ready to leave the city.
One of their friends had a summer house on Shelter Island and when Justine was six months old and her brother Ray was three, the family moved here.
Justine’s dad was a cabinet-maker at the time and most of his clients were on the East End. These days he’s a Shelter Island Town Building Inspector and her mom Kyle is an occupational therapist specializing in pediatric therapy and an adjunct instructor at Stony Brook Southampton.
When Justine was 12, she began making regular trips to New York City on her own, starting with a 7 a.m. Jitney from Greenport that dropped her off at 86th street on the East Side. From there, she made her way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent the rest of the day sightseeing on the Upper East side.
She missed her return bus but was able to get another one as far as East Hampton, forcing her mom into an unscheduled trip to the South Fork to pick up her adventuring daughter. On a later trip, she figured out the subway system and visited the borough of her birth on the F train.
Justine describes herself as “a lopsided student — graduating a year early — terrible in math, but very strong and very interested in the humanities.” She credits her social studies teachers with helping her develop an interest in history and politics.
“When I think back about my experience here, I’m definitely going to be thinking about the social studies classroom, and Mr. Brennan and Mr. Miedema,” she said.
She’s also working with the Living History Project at the Shelter Island Historical Society, an oral history project that archives video interviews of graduating seniors.
She loves to read, loves history and is also interested in politics. Her senior thesis on the Watergate scandal makes the argument that Watergate ushered in an era of entertainment value in politics, where facts became less relevant and political appeal had more to do with who is the most entertaining person to watch.
Justine reconciles her love of reading with her love of socializing by feeling free to combine the two.
“Both proms I’ve attended, I’ve been sure that my purse is big enough for a book,” she said.
When she broke out a copy of the Colm Tóibín novel “Brooklyn” at one prom, her brother intervened. “Ray came over and asked me to stop reading,” she said.
An enthusiastic participant in the annual school musical, Justine is never on stage. “I play from the sidelines,” she said. “That’s how I like it. I applaud the people who can get in front of people.”
Her specialty is the management of props and last year’s production, which involved more than the usual number of fragile and roughly-used objects, was a challenge she accepted with evident relish, especially as she had to make sure that nothing broken made it on stage.
Justine is a member of the women’s cross-country team, participates in spring track, is a co-editor of the yearbook, and writes for The Inlet, the school’s newspaper. Her love of running opened the door to her first experience as a journalist, writing articles about the cross-country and varsity boys basketball teams for this newspaper, in which her supple and vivid writing skills were evident.
“I want to write professionally,” she said. “I’m not sure if that means being a journalist or in some other medium.”
It dawned on her that going to high school here is a rare experience when a summer friend who attends Bronx High School of Science told her stories of competitive behavior that Justine can hardly believe.
“Here, you know everyone, from the moment you are born until the moment you leave,” Justine said. “I love how informal you can be with your teachers.”
She pointed with pride to the fact that a group of high school students spoke at a Town Board meeting last year to voice their opinions about short-term rentals and affordable housing.
“That was driven by concern,” Justine said. “People want to come back and have this life and they’re worried they won’t be able to.”
She said most students here are awake and aware of what’s going on in town. For example, she said, when former Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty told an offensive joke in a speech last year at the League of Women’s Voters sponsored State of the Town event, a large contingent of high school students were present, including Justine
“We were really upset by his comments,” she said. “There are kids who don’t care, but there are more who have an extraordinary amount of hometown pride. Those kids want Shelter Island the way they want it to be.”
What do you always have with you? A book.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? I like long runs out in Dering Harbor and Ram Island. Those courses are my favorite places.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? In New York, the walk from 42nd Street and Third Avenue down to Union Square, passing through Gramercy Park.
When was the last time you were elated? My friend Francesca is extremely excited about prom and took me and two other friends shopping at Estelle’s Dressy Dresses, a five-hour ordeal. Seeing how elated she was, it wore off on me. Francesca and I got dresses. Both were red.
What exasperates you? People who don’t have a sense of humor.
What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? A Wednesday in May because at that point no one is out and the weather is beautiful.
Favorite food? Ice cream.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Margaret Doyle. I look up to her. She took me with her family to London and on many trips to the city.