'Ice is nice': Blind Thai teacher wins royal recognition

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Damkerng Mungthanya is a 26-year-old Thai who wakes up at 5 each morning for his mother to walk him to a train station for the commute into downtown Bangkok, where a student accompanies him to the high school where he works.

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The English teacher who has been blind since birth has inspired many across Thailand, winning recognition for his determination and service from King Maha Vajiralongkorn this year.

“Kru Ice is very nice, but if you are late with homework he will scold you,” said Janjira Kaewmaram, 14, referring to the teacher by a nickname his students use.

Yet his journey has not been without hurdles.

Parents questioned his skills when he first joined the school two years ago, even though he had topped his graduation class at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University and placed third in an exam for thousands of teachers nationwide.”The school said some parents were worried,” Damkerng told Reuters in an interview. “Some asked, ‘Why did the school accept a blind teacher?’”

Damkerng was upset, but not defeated, saying he could not let the concerns of others hold him back.

“I have to prove that my abilities speak louder than disability.”

It is not unusual for the visually-impaired to become teachers in Thailand, but most work in colleges and institutions of higher education, with few in primary or secondary schools, like Damkerng.

“He has a passion for teaching,” said Veena Ratanasumawong, the department head at the Satri Si Suriyothai school where he teaches the eighth grade.

“I saw his ability for teaching and how he made it fun and got students engaged. He is well-prepared and very responsible.”

So it was no surprise that authorities at the school, where he had once trained, stood by Damkerng, vouching for him and allaying the fears of anxious parents. Now he is a hit with his students, whom he remembers by their voices.

“He is a big inspiration, and motivates us to speak English more,” said his student Janjira, adding that his lessons were clear.

A ceremony in February celebrated the conferral of one of the highest honors a Thai citizen can achieve, a letter from King Maha Vajiralongkorn acknowledging Damkerng’s contribution and hailing him as “a good role model for society and country”.

Damkerng says he was moved by the letter, which has encouraged him to continue teaching and set his sights on a scholarship for graduate school.

Reporting by Athit Perawongmetha and Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Clarence Fernandez