Encore: Author Jamil Jan Kochai reunites with his 2nd-grade teacher who taught him English
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Jamil Kochai is an accomplished man. He was born to Afghan parents in a refugee camp in Pakistan. He is now a successful author and PEN/Hemingway Award finalist. He credits much of his success to his second-grade teacher, Susannah Lung. We spoke with them in August, shortly after their reunion at a reading event for his latest book, "The Haunting of Hajji Hotak," and asked the author how his teacher had helped him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
JAMIL KOCHAI: Oh, I mean, you know, it all starts from the beginning. I grew up in a household that was filled with women who spoke just entirely Pashto and Farsi. And so, you know, I was starting second grade completely terrified. I didn't know my alphabets. I knew, like, 10 letters. But that was when I was fortunate enough to meet Mrs. Lung for the first time, who, you know, within the course of a year, by staying with me after school, taught me how to read and write.
SIMON: Remember a couple of scenes for us, if you can, of Mrs. Lung helping you out.
KOCHAI: Yeah. You know, I mean, the main thing that I recall about Mrs. Lung in particular is just the warmth with which she taught. Before then, you know, during kindergarten, I kept getting punished for not understanding or for not obeying directions. And so I think, in a way, I associated learning or school with punishment. But Mrs. Lung just - she completely changed that for me.
SIMON: How long have you been searching for her? What set that off?
KOCHAI: Oh, you know, it's been - yeah, it's been 22 years now. It's ever since high school. My parents just - they kept emphasizing to me, you know, that, you know, you owe this all to Mrs. Lung. You've got to get back in touch with Mrs. Lung. And so I started scouring the internet. I looked up her name. Unfortunately, I didn't know Susannah's first name at the time, and so I was typing in Mrs. Lung. I went back to my elementary school. I asked them. I hit a dead end there. I went back to the district office. So it was probably around, you know, my 20s or so that I just sort of gave up on the search. And then in 2019, when my first novel came out, I ended up writing this essay, and in the essay I mentioned Mrs. Lung and how important she was to my development as a reader and as a writer. And, you know, lo and behold, the essay somehow - it got to her. But it wasn't until I was doing a reading event for "The Haunting Of Hajji Hotak."
SIMON: Well, let me - hold on to that thought.
SIMON: We're joined now by Susannah Lung. Thank you very much for being with us, Mrs. Lung.
SUSANNAH LUNG: Oh, thank you, Scott, for having me.
SIMON: So how did you hear about this brilliant student?
LUNG: Well, I was in my neurologist's office, and she said, you're a teacher. Did you teach in West Sac? I said, yes. She said, well, I have this article from this young man, and it's probably about you. And I was just - I was floored.
LUNG: And when I saw who it was - I mean, of course, he looks nothing like he did then. He was just this little guy, and he had needs, and I was fortunate enough to be able to fulfill them.
SIMON: What was that first phone conversation like?
LUNG: When Jamil's dad got on the phone, I started to cry because he was just so grateful and, you know, I can't - words can't express.
SIMON: Oh, boy. You were making an appearance in Davis, Calif. Scores of people turned out to applaud this fantastically successful author. Who did you see?
KOCHAI: Well, you know, it's funny because when I first went up to sort of - to introduce the book, I hadn't recognized her. It wasn't until after. And I have to admit, it was the - it was that same sense of just immediate warmth and kindness. You know, it was like a 7-year-old Jamil hugging his second-grade teacher again. And that's what it felt like.
LUNG: I was blown away. He's gotten bigger.
LUNG: That guy - little guy turned into just a wonderful man that writes beautifully - just writes beautifully.
SIMON: Yeah. Mrs. Lung, what's important to being a good teacher, do you think?
LUNG: I think passion. You don't have passion for it, it's a tough job. If you have passion for it, it's heaven.
SIMON: What's it like for you, Mr. Kochai, to be able to personally thank this person? You know, we get, I don't know, 20 or 30 teachers in our lives.
KOCHAI: To me, it feels like a miracle. I don't know what else to call it. It was just this tremendous surprise, and it felt - you know, I'm a writer, so I dabble in stories all the time, and so it just felt like the perfect ending to this long story.
SIMON: This has the makings of a great memoir, doesn't it?
KOCHAI: I think so.
LUNG: If anybody can do it justice, you can.
KOCHAI: Thank you.
SIMON: Jamil Jan Kochai and his former teacher, Susannah Lung. Who knows who you'll meet along the road next, Mr. Kochai?
KOCHAI: Hey, I'm looking forward to it.
SIMON: Well, thank you. And Mrs. Lung, thank you. Thank you for what you've done for literature.
LUNG: Oh, thanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF HARRIS HELLER'S "SARAH-TONIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.