Kochai emigrated from Pakistan to the United States when he was very young. At home, his family spoke only Pashto and Farsi, and what little English he knew slipped from his mind after first grade when he and his family spent the summer in Afghanistan, the homeland of her parents, whom they fled during the Soviet invasion.
When the family returned to California for her sophomore year, Kochai mustered up all her courage to enter her class. That’s when a teacher named Ms. Lung came into his life – and, according to Kochai, single-handedly changed the course of it.
Lung, Kochai’s teacher at Alyce Norman Elementary School, reached out to help. She devoted herself to supporting him as he learned English – a stark contrast to his previous educators, he said.
“From the start, she had this warmth and an incredible sense of caring for her students,” Kochai recalls.
Almost every day after school, Lung would sit next to Kochai at a small desk, patiently teaching him to read and write in English.
“She showed me that I didn’t have to be afraid of it, and that it might actually be something I could like,” he said.
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By the end of the second year, Kochai was fluent in English, and the following year he won a reading comprehension award.
“I went back and showed Ms. Lung my award,” recalls Kochai – who became a published author, writing two books, as well as several essays and short stories.
After third grade, Kochai and his family moved away and he lost contact with his favorite teacher. But he never forgot the impact Lung had on him.
“I would tell everyone about Ms. Lung,” Kochai said. “I owed him everything”
Throughout his life, he tried several times to find her by browsing the Internet.
When that didn’t work, he called his elementary school and he also went to the district office. He had no luck finding Lung, mainly, he said, because he didn’t know his first name.
As he grew older – and advanced in his writing career – he appreciated his influence even more.
In fact, to promote his first novel – “99 Nights in Logar” – Kochai wrote an article for a literary website in 2019. In it he mentioned Lung.
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“I have been helped throughout this year by a generous teacher. Ms. Lung (through months and months of after-school sessions) re-taught me everything I was supposed to know about English, and by the end of the year I had adopted the new language. “Kochai wrote.
Shortly after, Susannah Lung – now a retired teacher living in Elk Grove, Calif. – was having an appointment with her neurologist, when the doctor mentioned to her that she had come across an interesting article. She shocked Lung by asking, “Are you the Mrs. Lung who taught Jamil Jan Kochai?”
Lung could hardly believe it.
“I remembered the name and I remembered what it looked like,” she said of Kochai. “He had a cute little smile.”
She had no idea at the time, however, that her then struggling student was becoming a successful author. She also learned that Kochai was an educator, teaching creative writing classes at the University of California, Davis and the University of Iowa.
Reading about Kochai’s accomplishments, “proud is the right word,” said Lung, now 75. “He deserves it all.”
Her husband, Allen, decided to message Kochai on Facebook, hoping to connect him with his wife, who was eager to reunite with her former student.
“I haven’t seen this for months and months because it was stuck in my message requests,” said Kochai, who still lives in West Sacramento.
Even though Kochai didn’t respond, Lung was flooded with vivid memories of wonder at Kochai’s ability to grow as a child.
“It was very rewarding because I only had it for a year and it was fast,” Lung said. “He got it, and I need to see it.”
Her effort with him, she said, was not out of the ordinary.
“That’s exactly what teachers do,” Lung said, explaining that she’s offered extra help to many students during her 30-year teaching career. In Kochai’s case, however, “he tried very hard and he wanted to learn the language. It makes things easier.
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Moreover, “he showed interest in things and asked questions. It wasn’t like pulling teeth to teach him,” Lung continued. “The joy we feel as teachers seeing these little children blossoming is amazing.”
Months after Lung’s husband posted the message on Facebook, Kochai finally saw it. As he scrolled through his inbox in the summer of 2020, he was stunned. He answered immediately and they arranged to have a call that evening.
“It was very, very emotional,” Kochai said. “My whole family was there. My parents were also looking for her and wanted to thank her for years. We all cried that night.
“She showed me the beauty of teaching and how a year and a course can change someone’s life,” he added.
The call was also deeply meaningful to Lung.
“Not just for him to phone and express what this whole time has been for him, but for his parents to thank me for doing my job,” she said.
They had hoped to reunite in person, but due to the pandemic and other life events — including the birth of Kochai’s first child — plans to meet have stalled.
Then, on August 13, Lung and her husband planned a surprise.
They saw on Facebook that Kochai had an upcoming event for his latest book, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories,” at UC-Davis. They decided to attend.
After reading the book, Lung’s husband approached Kochai, first introducing himself, then motioning towards his wife. Kochai did a double take when he saw his teacher from 23 years ago.
“When I saw Ms. Lung there, my heart sank,” he said. “It wasn’t like seeing someone from my past, it was like seeing someone I’ve known, loved and loved all my life.”
“I gave him a big hug; a hug I had been waiting 20 years to give her,” he said. “I felt like a 7-year-old again with his beloved teacher.”
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His parents were also reading.
“We were all very emotional and teary eyed,” Kochai said.
The warm feelings were mutual: “Teachers rarely follow their children into adulthood and find them doing good things,” Lung said. “He is something else.”
Seeing his student – who hesitantly approached his class for the first time 23 years ago, knowing no English at all – being celebrated for his writing, felt like “a miracle”, Lung said.
She bought a copy of her new book and “I wrote a note about how this book belongs to her more than anyone else,” Kochai said.
He told the story in a Twitter feed, which quickly amassed tens of thousands of likes, shares and comments. people responded with similar stories about teachers who have made a resounding difference in their lives.
“My father always used to say in Pashto that every child is a rocket full of fuel and it only takes one spark to fly up to the sky,” kochai wrote. “Ms. Lung, he said, was my spark.
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