It took 20 years for this writer to reunite with the teacher who changed him

The author was born in a refugee camp for Afghans in Peshawar, Pakistan, and his family moved to California when he was just one 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 complete loss.

As a result, he said, “I associated school and education with punishment and exclusion.”

He fell further behind in the summer of 1999, when the family spent several months in Afghanistan.

“I fell in love with my parents’ village in Logar, but what I learned in first grade, I forgot as summer ended,” Kochai explained.

Picture of writer Jamil Jan Kochai as a second grader.
Writer Jamil Jan Kochai in a 1999 photo for a class assignment in teacher Susan Lung’s class. (Jamil Jan Kochai)

Mrs. Lung’s magic—and all the dedicated teachers out there

Then came Mrs. Lung, who quickly realized that Kochai Alice Norman was struggling deeply both academically and socially at elementary school.

“I could see he was sharp as a tack, but it was tough for him,” Lung told NPR.

“Not only did he have to deal with forgetting all the English he knew, but he also had to deal with kids who didn’t understand him.”

The two began working, meeting almost every day after school for one-on-one lessons. By the end of the school year, Kochai said, he had won the reading-comprehension competition.

Reflecting back on the experience, Lung said it wasn’t a particularly unique situation.

“There are thousands of teachers out there doing the same thing, and they’re doing it for the love of it. Not for any kind of accolades, because we have a passion for it,” he said.

Lung added: “It’s incredible to see their literacy 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 of not being on a first name basis with your elementary school teachers

Lung and Kochai lose their touch together towards the end of the year. Kochai’s father got a job in another city and the boy left with a keen new love for reading. When he reached high school, Kochai’s parents encouraged him to find his former teacher to thank him. But despite his efforts, he failed to find her.

“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 record of her,” he said with a laugh. .

But Kochai kept trying after college. But came up empty-handed.

Then, while promoting her first novel, she wrote an essay for Literary Hub magazine that had a profound effect on her life. The lung neurosurgeon read it, and during his next visit, the physician asked the now-retired educator, “Did you ever teach at Alice Norman Elementary School?”

It was Lung’s husband who finally found Kochai. “He found me on Facebook and reached out to me out of the blue,” Kochai said.

They planned to make a phone call that same night.

“I finally got a chance to express to him after all these years how much I still think of him and how much he means to me,” Kochai said, adding that he was able to bring both his parents on the call. “She was just the same Mrs. Lung. Sweet and kind and warm as always. And we were all crying. It was a really emotional, beautiful night,” she 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 began to get in the way, and the reunion never materialized.

Reunited and it feels so good

“Again, my husband’s idea was to go study on Saturday,” Lung said.

Lung’s husband saw a Facebook post about Kochai’s new book and suggested they drive to Davis, California for a reading.

“I had no idea they would be there,” Kochai said, 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’s been 20 to 22 years since I last saw her,” he reasoned.

They hugged and she swooned, and he asked her to sign a copy of his first novel.

“And I had to leave him a little note to explain how much he meant to me. And it was a really nice evening,” Kochai added.

They exchanged numbers again, and now they have a new plan. “We’re going to have a big family dinner next week!” Dr. Kochai.