Byline: SANDY STRICKLAND
She doesn't talk about it much. And when she does, tears well up in her brown eyes.
There were the harrowing days cramped in a small boat on the South China Sea with a daily ration of three sips of water and a teaspoon of rice powder with sugar.
There was the trauma of being in a strange new city connected by so many bridges and with alien structures such as escalators.
And there was the emotional turmoil of being 17, far away from friends, unable to speak English, not knowing if she would see her parents again.
But these experiences shaped Mai Keisling's life and led to her career as an art teacher at Paxon School for Advanced Studies. Keisling, who came to Jacksonville from Vietnam in 1982, was so influenced by the teachers who enabled her to remain in school that she decided to become one.
Now the East Arlington resident is being recognized for the influence she's having on her students. Keisling is one of six finalists -- chosen from 160 nominees -- for Duval County Teacher of the Year. The award will be presented Tuesday, April 18, at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville.
Keisling's classroom is filled with her students' artwork -- multi-colored vases with intriguing squiggles, wood and papier-mache sculptures in geometric configurations and cherry cheesecake, chicken drumsticks and sushi made of earthenware.
Her students said Keisling has inspired them to become better artists by pointing out what they need to improve.
"She takes the time to know what you are capable of and then pushes you to become that," said Christina Kiely, a senior who has Keisling for advanced placement 3-D art and portfolio.
Not only is she versed in art, but Keisling can tutor students in a variety of subjects, the Mandarin resident said.
Ortega resident Leah Fox, a senior, said Keisling has turned Paxon's art program around in her three years at the school and that students are going to more competitions and winning more awards.
It was only after coming to the United States at 17 that Keisling, who sculpts and paints, was turned on to art. She and three of her 10 siblings left their village in Bien Hoa because her mother wanted them to get out of a country torn by political strife and economic hardship. It was a harrowing journey that took several days and included walking through the night to reach the beach where they caught their boat.
Fifty-four people crowded into the small vessel; Keisling and 20 others were huddled in the lower portion. They sailed into a storm-tossed South China Sea in a boat that felt like it was about to crack open, whose engine had stopped working and with water swirling to their waists.
"It felt like death was in front of your face," Keisling said. "None of us knew how to swim."
If she survived, Keisling vowed to make her mother's sacrifice worthwhile. On the sixth day, desperately hungry and unable to stand up, they were picked up by a ship and taken to refugee camps in Malaysia and then to Bataan, where Keisling caught malaria. …