DAVIS, Calif. - A Northern California author and Stanford writing fellow has shared a moving story about a long-awaited reunion, long-held gratitude and how one caring teacher can change the path of a child’s life forever.
Last week, writer Jamil Jan Kochai tweeted a photo of himself standing next to a woman he’d been looking for for almost 20 years.
The woman, Susan Lung, was credited for going above and beyond her job as a teacher to help him learn to read and to write when Kochai was in grade school, struggling to learn a language that was not his native tongue and was chastised because the language barrier prevented him from following along in the classroom.
The acclaimed author, named a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway Award in 2020 and a 2019 nominee for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for his debut novel "99 Nights in Logar," took to social media and shared how the long hoped-for meeting with his former teacher came about after years of searching for her.
The author told of the special reunion in a poignantly and beautifully woven post on social media which he began with this: "Let me tell you a story."
That story was about a young child who with his family had come to the U.S. from Afghanistan at the age of one-and-a-half. The 29-year-old Kochai, who was born in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan, settled with his family in the Sacramento-area.
The first years of his life, he only heard Pashto and Farsi at home. So English was a completely foreign language when he entered the school system as a kindergartner.
"I don't think my teacher knew how to handle an ESL student. He used to punish me for not understanding his directions," Kochai shared.
The challenges of learning English were exacerbated by the fact his family moved from place to place, and he was moved from school to school, as his father searched for work. They also spent a summer back in Afghanistan, which meant he lost much of what he learned and was only able to recall a handful of letters of the English alphabet when he started second grade.
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 his life who would help break down that barrier. "I had the fortune of meeting Ms. Lung," Kochai wrote.
He shared how almost every single day after school, Ms. Lung sat down with the then 7-year-old to work with him and provide the extra lessons that would teach him how to read and write in his non-native language. She went out of her way to ensure the child would learn these skills and catch up with his peers in the classroom.
And her 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'd learned to read and write, and by third grade, I was winning awards for reading comprehension," he shared.
His family would move again, and Kochai ended up losing contact with Ms. Lung.
But through the years, he thought of his former teacher often and made multiple attempts to find her. He wanted to express to her the deep gratitude he held for her, for giving him the invaluable gift of literacy, a gift that had led to many successes in his life.
"For years afterward, all throughout high school and college, I tried to find Ms. Lung, to thank her for everything she'd done for me," Kochai explained. "I searched google and social media. I called my old school and visited The district office."
But he said that he could not locate her and just ran into 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 had dug up as part of his detective work and noted that the photo identified her only as "Mrs. Lung."
1999-2000 class photo from Jamil Jan Kochai's 2nd grade class at Alyce Norman Elementary in West Sacramento, Calif.
By the time he'd finished college, he’d pretty much given up on his search efforts. "I figured Ms. Lung had moved on to a new state, a new life," he recalled thinking.
But it was through his writing that led to a fortuitous event that would eventually connect him to the teacher he had been seeking.
A few years ago, after his first book came out, he had written an article for the literary website known as "Lit Hub," in which he mentioned his old teacher. A man who had heard about that article took to Facebook and reached out to Kochai.
That man just happened to be Allen Lung, Ms. Lung's husband. After making their connection, Mr. Lung then asked Kochai if he wanted to talk with his wife that very night.
The author, of course, said yes. It was a moment he had been waiting for for so long. And he wasn’t the only one excited about the reconnection with his former mentor. His whole family got excited about the call and gathered together for the conversation.
"My parents had been wanting to thank Ms. Lung for years as well," Kochai explained, saying that when the call was made, it was an emotional moment and an opportunity to say all the things he had been wanting to tell this pivotal figure in his life.
"When I finally got the chance to hear Ms. Lung's voice, tears welled up in my eyes," the author shared. "I told her that everything I'd accomplished I owed to her, and that I thought of her all the time and that I'd been searching for her for years," he said adding, "We all cried that night."
The face-to-face meeting they had all hoped for would have to wait though. The call was made during the height of the pandemic, Kochai explained, so they were observing stay-at-home orders.
And then when pandemic restrictions slowly lifted, things got busy with significant life events, including the birth of his first child and the death of his grandmother.
His attention was also turned to publishing his new book, "The Haunting of Hajji Hotak," as well as focusing on the political turmoil in homeland Afghanistan, where its government collapsed last year.
He said it was a "hectic time" and unfortunately, the two lost touch again.
It wasn’t until Aug. 13, following a reading he did for a literary group called "Stories on Stage Davis," would he finally be able to reunite with the woman to whom he owed so much.
"After my reading, Ms. Lung's husband, Allen, rushed up to me, introduced himself, and brought me over to Ms. Lung," Kochai wrote. And all the feelings he had for his teacher from when he was a struggling student in grade school, rushed back to him.
"Seven year old me finally got to hug my 2nd grade teacher again. We chatted and smiled and cried," he wrote. And noted that it was through the skill of writing that she so greatly helped him develop, that he attempted to accurately articulate his gratitude toward her.
"I signed her book and tried to write on the page what I couldn't express with my voice," Kochai shared.
The reunion provided an opportunity for the author and those who read this story a chance to express how teachers make an impact on young lives.
Since sharing about it on Twitter, his story has received more than 89K likes. Many have responded with their own "Ms. Lung" stories. Many who have commented have been teachers themselves. And many have expressed how they were moved to tears by the author’s account.
Irfan Khan, a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times, commented, "Jamil Jan your story brought tears in my eyes. You are a blessed man that a teacher like Ms. Lung came into your life. I salute to 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 towards Ms. Lung. I am so glad to hear of your reunification and of your success."
Kochai’s story was perhaps even more profound and meaningful during a time when many school districts across the country were facing teacher shortages, struggling to staff their classrooms.
Twitter user @Cpo10za wrote, "As someone who comes from a long line of educators, thanks for sharing this. Teachers are being put through so much right now; it’s a good reminder of the rewards of the profession, & the need to ensure good teachers get the support, pay, & safety they need to impact young lives."
Kochai also took the opportunity to express how valuable teachers were, especially to those who needed an extra hand. "I know how often teachers are overworked, underpaid and mistreated 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.
The author said he’d been lucky to come across many other caring, "remarkable" and influential teachers in his life. But he said his success and the strides he made all started with that one special educator who took the time to invest in him.
"Everything really began with Ms. Lung," he said, "And I thought it was important that people hear her story, and that they know how much one teacher, in one year, can change a child's entire life."
Kochai finished his story by saying, "My father always used to say in Pashto that every child is a rocket filled with fuel and all they need is a single spark to lift off into the sky. Ms. Lung, he said, was my spark."
Jamil Jan Kochai author of "99 Nights in Logar" and "The Haunting of Hajji Hotak." ( Jalil Kochai)
This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.