Northern California author shares moving story of reunion with teacher credited with changing his life

Author Jamil Jan Kochai with his 2nd grade teacher in Davis, Calif. on August 13, 2022.

A Northern California author and Stanford Writing Fellow shared a moving story about a long-awaited reunion, long-lasting gratitude, and how a caring teacher can forever change the path of a child’s life.

Last week, writer Jamil Jan Kochai tweeted a photo of him standing next to a woman he had been looking for for almost 20 years.

The wife, Susan Lung, was credited with going above and beyond her job as a teacher to help her learn to read and write when Kochai was in elementary school, struggling to learn a language that was not not her native language and was reprimanded because the language barrier prevented her from following in class.

The acclaimed authornamed one Pen/Hemingway Award Finalist in 2020 and nominated in 2019 for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for her debut novel “99 Nights in Logar,” took to social media and shared how the long-awaited meeting with her former teacher happened after years of searching for her.

The author recounted the reunion special in a poignant and beautifully woven social media post that he began with, “Let me tell you a story.”

This story was about a young child who, with his family, came to the United States from Afghanistan when he was one and a half years old. Kochai, 29, born in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan, settled with his family in the Sacramento area.

During the first years of his life, he only heard Pashto and Farsi at home. English was therefore a completely foreign language when it entered the school system as a kindergarten.

“I don’t think my teacher knew how to handle an ESL student. He used to punish me for not understanding his instructions,” Kochai explained.

The challenges of learning English were exacerbated by the fact that his family moved from place to place and he was moved from school to school, while his father sought work. They also spent a summer in Afghanistan, which meant he lost much of what he learned and could only remember a handful of letters of the English alphabet when he started the second year.

Learning would be an uphill battle and a barrier in the classroom without knowing how to read and write. But luck would have it, a teacher came into her life who would help break down that barrier. “I was lucky enough to meet Ms. Lung,” Kochai wrote.

He recounted how almost every day after school, Ms Lung sat down with the then 7-year-old to work with him and give him the extra lessons that would teach him to read and write in his non-native language. . She went out of her way to make sure the child learned these skills and caught up with her peers in the class.

And his dedication and belief in Kochai paid off in wonderful ways, both in those early years and then of course down the road when Kochai would become a notable author. “By the end of the year, I had learned to read and write, and by third grade, I was winning prizes for reading comprehension,” he explained.

Her family would move again, and Kochai eventually lost contact with Ms. Lung.

But over the years, he often thought of his former teacher and made multiple attempts to find her. He wanted to express to her the deep gratitude he had for her, for giving him the priceless gift of literacy, a gift that had led to many successes in his life.

“For years afterwards, all through high school and college, I tried to find Ms. Lung, to thank her for everything she had done for me,” Kochai explained. “I searched Google and social media. I called my old school and visited the district office.”

But he said he couldn’t locate her and just hit some dead ends. “The main problem was that I didn’t know Ms. Lung’s first name! Kochai wrote.

He shared his 2nd grade class photo that he unearthed as part of his detective work and noted that the photo uniquely identified him as “Mrs. Lung”.

Class 1999-2000 photo of Jamil Jan Kochai’s 2nd grade class at Alyce Norman Elementary School in West Sacramento, California.

By the time he had finished college, he had all but given up on his research efforts. “I thought Ms. Lung had moved on to a new state, a new life,” he recalled thinking.

But it was through his writing that a chance event finally put him in touch with the teacher he was looking for.

A few years ago, after the publication of his first book, he wrote an article for the literary website known as “Lit Hub”, in which he mentioned his former teacher. A man who had heard of this article took to Facebook and contacted Kochai.

This man happened to be Allen Lung, Mrs. Lung’s husband. After establishing their connection, Mr. Lung then asked Kochai if he wanted to speak with his wife that evening.

The author, of course, said yes. It was a moment he had been waiting for so long. And he wasn’t the only one excited about reconnecting with his former mentor. His whole family was excited about the call and gathered for the conversation.

“My parents also wanted to thank Ms. Lung for years,” Kochai explained, saying that when the call was made, it was a touching moment and an opportunity to say whatever he wanted to say to this pivotal figure. in his life.

“When I finally had the chance to hear Ms. Lung’s voice, I had tears in my eyes,” the author explained. “I told her that I owed her everything I had achieved, that I thought of her all the time and that I had been looking for her for years,” he said, adding, “We all cried this that night.”

The face-to-face encounter they had all hoped for would have to wait, however. The call was made during the height of the pandemic, Kochai said, so they were observing stay-at-home orders.

And then, when pandemic restrictions were slowly lifted, things got busy with significant life events, including the birth of her first child and the death of her grandmother.

His attention has also been on the publication of his new book, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak”, as well as the political unrest in the Afghan homeland, where his government collapsed last year.

He said it was a “turbulent time” and sadly the two lost contact again.

It wasn’t until August 13, following a reading he did for a literary group called “Davis Stage Stories“, would he finally be able to find the woman to whom he owed so much.

“After my reading, Ms. Lung’s husband, Allen, rushed over to me, introduced himself, and brought me to Ms. Lung,” Kochai wrote. And all the feelings he had for his teacher since he was a struggling student in elementary school, rushed to him.

“I, seven years old, finally got to hug my 2nd grade teacher again. We chatted, smiled and cried,” he wrote. And noted that it was through the skill of writing that she helped him grow so much, that he attempted to articulate his gratitude to her with precision.

“I signed his book and tried to write on the page what I couldn’t express with my voice,” Kochai explained.

The meeting allowed the author and those who read this story to express the impact of teachers on the lives of young people.

Since posting about it on Twitter, his story has received over 89,000 likes. Many responded with their own “Ms. Lung” stories. Many of those who commented were teachers themselves. And many have expressed how moved they were to tears by the author’s account.

Los Angeles Times photographer Irfan Khan commented“Jamil Jan, your story brought tears to my eyes. You are a blessed man to have a teacher like Ms. Lung come into your life. I salute all teachers.”

Twitter user and teacher @panspxie also reacted to Kochai’s story. “This teacher is in tears at your heartfelt words of gratitude and appreciation to Ms. Lung. I am so happy to hear of your reunification and success.”

Kochai’s story was perhaps even more profound and meaningful at a time when many school districts across the country faced teacher shortages, struggling to staff their classrooms.

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Twitter user @Cpo10za wrote“As someone from a long line of educators, thank you for sharing this. Teachers are going through so much right now; it’s a good reminder of the rewards of the profession and the need to ensure that good teachers get the support, pay and security they need to impact the lives of young people.”

Kochai also took the opportunity to express how valuable the teachers were, especially for those who needed an extra helping hand. “I know how often teachers are overworked, underpaid and abused in this country, but a good teacher can mean the world to a student struggling with a new language or a new community,” he said. declared.

The author said he was fortunate to meet many other caring, “remarkable” and influential teachers in his life. But he said his success and the progress he has made all started with this special educator who took the time to invest in him.

“It all really started with Ms. Lung,” he said, “and I thought it was important for people to hear her story and know how much a teacher, in a year, can do. change a child’s entire life.”

Kochai ended her story by saying, “My father always used to say in Pashto that every child is a rocket full of fuel and all they need is a single spark to take off into the sky. Ms. Lung, said he said, was my spark.”

Jamil Jan Kochai author of “99 Nights in Logar” and “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak”. (Jalil Kochai)

Lola R. McClure