When Keri Bolivar found her favorite teacher in an Oregon classroom, she thought she found her calling.
"I remember sitting at the desk, clear as day, saying 'I can do that,' " said Bolivar, who lives in Old Carrollwood.
Born in Vietnam, she still didn't know English as well as her peers back then. She struggled in school.
Today, 41-year-old Bolivar is an educator at Davidsen Middle School. In October, she was chosen as Florida's best beginning English teacher of the year.
Back in sixth grade, she lacked the confidence to take her dream of teaching seriously.
Her self-esteem had been stolen from her many miles away, in an abusive orphanage, before she turned 5 years old.
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Bolivar, who often goes by her middle name MaiLinda, was born in Saigon during the Vietnam War. She never knew her birth parents.
"We suspect the mother was a prostitute and the father a black American GI," Bolivar said.
At the time, children born to U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women were unwanted and called "children of the dust."
So Bolivar spent the first 41/2 years of her life in a French Catholic orphanage, where, she remembers, the cockroaches outnumbered the kids, where clothespins bound her hands to her crib at night, where she got the scar on her forehead.
Finally, an international adoption agency joined her with a U.S. couple who were educators.
Her mother, Anne Gross, and father, Kermit Horn, are retired teachers. They adopted four daughters, three from Vietnam, one from Korea.
"(Adopting) was our form of protesting the Vietnam War," said Gross, 69, who lives in Eugene, Ore. "We discovered there were children who were older, perhaps fathered by American GIs, and they would not be accepted by the society in which they were born."
Bolivar met her parents for the first time at an airport in Seattle.
"She was scared, I was scared and we just sort of clung to each other," Gross said. "But she was very easy to love."
As Bolivar grew, she learned English and took up singing and dancing.
School, however, was difficult.
"It was the traditional sit down, read the book, hope you understand it and be ready to take a test," Bolivar said.
Her teachers didn't use charts or graphs or pictures, exactly what Bolivar now believes she needed.
She flunked fourth grade and didn't do well in high school math. She did not believe she could pass the necessary tests to become a teacher. So she hid her hopes to teach behind a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Oregon.
She met her husband, Rick Bolivar, at a Starbucks in Portland in 1999.
She worked a short stint as a news radio announcer and another as a TV news writer before earning a master's degree in organizational management from the University of Phoenix — and pulled straight A's in the program. She and her husband moved to Florida, where she worked in insurance.
Still, she felt called to teach.
"I felt like a robot going through the motions of working files and settling claims," Bolivar said. "To invest in a job that God did not create for me was to deny myself all that my adoptive parents had given me: freedom, education and a creative mind. I needed to take a major U-turn in my life."
In 2004, she met with a professor at the University of South Florida and found out what it would take to teach in Florida. There, she started a master's degree in teaching. Then she went to a Hillsborough County School District job fair, where she met with members of Davidsen Middle's administration.
"The team interviewed me for the language arts position and I immediately felt at home," she said. "I was prepared to be a teacher in mind, body and spirit."
She got the job.
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Bolivar's students follow her around the room with their eyes. Some raise their hands to answer questions. Beside stacks and boxes and buckets of books, she controls colorful slides she put together.
"I've had teachers tell me they like that I use PowerPoint (slide shows), but they won't because it takes too much time," said Bolivar, who finished her master's degree in teaching last December. "My students are worth the time."
That's the attitude that recently earned Bolivar the Florida Council of Teachers of English Beginning Teacher of the Year Award, said Joan Kaywell.
"It's a very prestigious award," said Kaywell, education professor at USF and president of the FCTE board of directors. "Real teachers really want to make a positive difference in the world."
Kaywell says Bolivar is one of those real teachers, which is why she was nominated for the award.
"The award was more about courage and belief," Bolivar said.
It was about confidence.
"I am finally doing what I tell my students to do," she said. "Believe in yourself."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 269-5301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.