Jamil Jan Kochai
Talk about a storybook ending.
Author Jamil Jan Kochai searched for more than a decade for Susan Lung — the second-grade teacher who had changed his life over 20 years earlier. And on Saturday night, in one of those “life is better than fiction” twists, the two were finally reunited at one of his book-reading events.
“I pretty much learned how to read and write in English because of her, and if it wasn’t for Mrs. Lung, I don’t know what would have happened to me,” Kochai, who still finds it difficult to call his former teacher by her first name, told NPR.
“I feel like everything that I’ve done up to this point — all the success that I’ve had, the fact that I’m a novelist today — it all started with Mrs. Lung all the way back in 1999, when I was 7 years old,” he added.
Kochai is the author of 99 Nights in Logar, a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. He is currently promoting his second book, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories. His work has been published and praised in many of the nation’s most esteemed publications. But for much of his early life, he could hardly speak English.
The writer was born in a refugee camp for Afghans in Peshawar, Pakistan, and his family moved to California when he was just a year old. At home, they spoke mostly Pashto and some Farsi, so by the time he reached first grade, Kochai said, he was at a total loss.
As a result, he said, “I associated school and learning with punishment and with exclusion.”
He fell further behind during the summer of 1999, when the family spent several months in Afghanistan.
“I fell in love with my parents’ home village in Logar, but pretty much everything that I learned in first grade, I ended up forgetting by the time the summer was over,” Kochai explained.
Jamil Jan Kochai
The magic of Mrs. Lung — and all the devoted teachers out there
Then came Mrs. Lung, who quickly realized that Kochai was deeply struggling at Alyce Norman Elementary School, both academically and socially.
“I could see he was sharp as a tack, but it was hard for him,” Lung told NPR.
“Not only did he have to deal with forgetting all the English that he knew, but he had to deal with the kids who couldn’t understand him.”
The two got to work, meeting for one-on-one lessons nearly every day after school. By the end of the school year, Kochai said, he was winning reading-comprehension competitions.
Thinking back on the experience, Lung said it’s not an especially unique situation.
“There are many thousands of teachers doing the same thing all over, and they’re doing it for the love of it. Not for any kind of kudos but because we have a passion for it,” she said.
Lung added: “It’s just incredible to see their literacy grow by leaps and bounds. To see when they’re able to communicate with their little friends, which I think is a big part of learning English or any other language.”
The problem with not being on a first-name basis with your elementary school teachers
Lung and Kochai lost touch at the end of their year together. Kochai’s father got a job in another city and the boy moved on, albeit with a voracious new love of reading and writing. By the time he reached high school, Kochai’s parents encouraged him to find his former teacher to thank her. But despite his efforts, he failed to track her down.
“Part of it was that I didn’t know her first name. She was always just Mrs. Lung to me, so when I called places to ask about her, they couldn’t find any records of her,” he said, laughing.
But Kochai kept trying through college and afterward. Still, he came up empty.
Then, while promoting his first novel, he wrote an essay for Literary Hub magazine touching on the transformative impact that Lung had on his life. Lung’s neurosurgeon happened to read it, and during her next visit, the physician asked the now-retired educator, “Did you ever teach at Alyce Norman Elementary School?”
It was Lung’s husband who ultimately found Kochai. “He found me on Facebook and reached out to me out of the blue,” Kochai said.
They made plans for a phone call that same night.
“I finally got the chance after all these years to express to her how much I still thought of her and how much she meant to me,” Kochai said, adding that he also managed to get both of his parents on the call. “She was just the same Mrs. Lung. Just as sweet and kind and warm as ever. And we were all tearing up. It was a really emotional, lovely night,” he said.
It was the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and they promised to meet in person as soon as things returned to normal. But as life does, Kochai said, one thing after another seemed to get in the way, and the reunion never materialized.
Reunited and it feels so good
“Again, it was my husband who had the idea, to go to the reading on Saturday,” Lung said.
Lung’s husband had seen a Facebook post about Kochai’s new book and suggested they make the drive to a reading in Davis, California.
“I had no idea they were going to be there,” Kochai said, sounding absolutely delighted.
“I don’t know how I didn’t see her before, but Mrs. Lung was sitting in the front row. I mean, it had been 20 to 22 years since the last time I’d seen her,” he reasoned.
They hugged and he gushed, and she asked him to sign her copy of his first novel.
“And I got to leave a little note for her explaining how much she meant to me. And it was a really lovely evening,” Kochai added.
They exchanged numbers again, and now they’ve made a new plan. “We’re going to have a big family dinner next week!” Kochai said.
In the meantime, Lung has some homework: “I am part of the way through his first book and I just got his second book at the reading, so I’ll be reading that when I’m finished.”