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Encore: Author Jamil Jan Kochai reunites with his 2nd-grade teacher who taught him English


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.


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.

KOCHAI: Absolutely.

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.

SIMON: Yeah.

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.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.