Jamil Jan Kochai was terrified to start second grade. He practiced writing the English alphabet at his parents’ dining room table in West Sacramento, Calif., and was ashamed when just 10 letters came to mind.
Kochai emigrated to the United States from Pakistan when he was a toddler. At home, his family only spoke Pashto and Farsi, and the little English he knew vanished from his mind after first grade when he and his family spent the summer in Afghanistan — his parents’ homeland, which they fled during the Soviet invasion.
When the family returned to California for his second-grade year, Kochai summoned all his courage to walk into his classroom. That’s when a teacher named Mrs. Lung came into his life — and, according to Kochai, single-handedly shifted the course of it.
Lung, Kochai’s teacher at Alyce Norman Elementary School, reached out to help him. She dedicated herself to supporting him as he learned English — a stark contrast to his previous educators, he said.
“From the beginning, she had this warmth and incredible sense of care for her students,” Kochai recalled.
Nearly every day after school, Lung would sit next to Kochai at a tiny desk, patiently teaching him how to read and write in English.
“She showed me that I didn’t have to be afraid of it, and it could actually be something that I could come to love,” he said.
By the end of second grade, Kochai was fluent in English, and the following year, he won a reading comprehension award.
“I went back and showed my award to Mrs. Lung,” recalled Kochai — who went on to become a published author, writing two books, as well as several essays and short stories.
After third grade, Kochai and his family moved around, and he lost touch with his favorite teacher. But he never forgot the impact Lung had on him.
“I would tell everyone I could about Mrs. Lung,” Kochai said. “I owed everything to her.”
As he moved through life, he repeatedly tried to track her down by scouring the internet.
When that didn’t yield results, he called his elementary school, and he also visited the district office. He had no luck finding Lung, mainly, he said, because he didn’t know her first name.
As he got older — and advanced in his writing career — he appreciated her influence even more.
“I was helped along that year by a generous teacher. Ms. Lung (through months and months of after-school sessions) retaught me everything I was supposed to know about English, and by the end of the year, I had adopted the new language,” Kochai wrote.
Soon after, Susannah Lung — now a retired teacher living in Elk Grove, Calif. — had an appointment with her neurologist, when the doctor happened to mention that she’d stumbled upon an interesting article. She shocked Lung by asking her: “Are you the Mrs. Lung that taught Jamil Jan Kochai?”
Lung could hardly believe it.
“I remembered the name, and I remembered what he looked like,” she said of Kochai. “He had a cute little smile.”
She had no idea at the time, though, that her then-struggling student became a successful author. She also learned that Kochai was an educator, teaching creative-writing courses at the University of California at Davis and the University of Iowa.
As she read about Kochai’s accomplishments, “proud is the right word,” said Lung, now 75. “He deserves it all.”
Her husband, Allen, decided to send Kochai a message on Facebook, hoping to connect him with his wife, who was eager to reunite with her former student.
“I didn’t see that for months and months, because it was stuck in my message requests,” said Kochai, who still lives in West Sacramento.
Even though Kochai hadn’t responded, Lung was flooded with vivid memories of marveling at Kochai’s capacity for growth as a child.
“It was very rewarding, because I only had him for one year and he was quick,” Lung said. “He got it, and I got to see it.”
Her effort with him, she said, wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“That’s just what teachers do,” said Lung, explaining that she offered extra help to numerous students over her 30-year teaching career. In Kochai’s case, though, “he tried really hard, and he wanted to learn the language. That makes it easy.”
Plus, “he was showing an interest in things and asking questions. It wasn’t like pulling teeth to teach him,” Lung continued. “The joy that we get as teachers from seeing these little kids blossom is incredible.”
Months after Lung’s husband sent the Facebook message, Kochai finally saw it. As he sifted through his inbox in the summer of 2020, he was floored. He responded immediately, and they arranged to have a call that evening.
“It was very, very emotional,” Kochai said. “My whole family was there. My parents had also been searching for her and wanted to thank her for years. We all cried that night.”
“She showed me the beauty of teaching, and how one year and one class can change someone’s life,” he added.
The call was also deeply meaningful for Lung.
“Not only to have him get on the phone and express what that whole time was to him, but to have his parents thank me for doing my job,” she said.
They hoped to reunite in person, but because of the pandemic and other life events — including the birth of Kochai’s first child — plans to meet stalled.
Then, on Aug. 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 the book reading, Lung’s husband approached Kochai, first introducing himself, then motioning toward his wife. Kochai did a double take when he saw his teacher from 23 years ago.
“When I saw Mrs. Lung there, my heart dropped,” he said. “It wasn’t like seeing someone from my past, it was like seeing someone that I’ve known and cared for and loved all my life.”
“I gave her a big hug; a hug I had been waiting 20 years to give her,” he said. “I felt like a 7-year-old kid with his beloved teacher again.”
His parents also were at the reading.
“We were all very emotional and teary-eyed,” said Kochai.
The warm feelings were mutual: “Teachers rarely ever get to follow their kids into adulthood and find them doing good things,” Lung said. “He is something else.”
Seeing her student — who first hesitantly approached her classroom 23 years ago, knowing no English at all — being celebrated for his writing, felt like “a miracle,” Lung said.
She bought a copy of his new book, and “I wrote a note about how this book belongs to her more than anyone else,” Kochai said.
He chronicled the story in a Twitter thread, which quickly amassed tens of thousands of likes, shares and comments. People chimed in with similar stories about teachers who made a resounding difference in their lives.
“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 light off into the sky,” Kochai wrote. “Ms. Lung, he said, was my spark.”