NPR’s Scott Simon interviews author Jamil Jan Kochai and his 2nd grade teacher, Susannah Lung, who taught him to read and write English after his family moved from Pakistan to the United States.
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 bestselling 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 they met at a reading event for his latest book, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak,” and asked the author how his teacher helped him.
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JAMIL KOCHAI: Oh, I mean, you know, it all starts from the beginning. I grew up in a house full of women who only spoke Pashto and Farsi. And so, you know, I was going into second year completely terrified. I didn’t know my alphabets. I knew like 10 letters. But that’s when I was lucky enough to first meet Mrs. Lung who, you know, within a year, staying with me after school, taught me how to read and to write.
SIMON: Recall a few scenes for us, if you can, of Mrs. Lung helping you.
KOCHAI: Yes. You know, I mean, the main thing I remember about Ms. Lung in particular is just how warmly she taught. Before that, you know, in kindergarten, I kept being punished for not understanding or not obeying instructions. And so I think, in a way, I associated learning or school with punishment. But Ms. Lung just – she completely changed that for me.
SIMON: How long have you been looking for her? What triggered this?
KOCHAI: Oh, you know, it’s been – yeah, it’s been 22 years now. It’s been since high school. My parents just – they kept telling me, you know, that, you know, you owe all of this to Mrs. Lung. You need to reconnect with Ms. Lung. And so I started browsing the internet. I looked up his name. Unfortunately, I didn’t know Susannah’s first name at the time, so I was typing Ms. Lung. I went back to my primary school. I asked them. I hit a dead end there. I returned to the district office. So it was probably around, you know, about my 20s that I kind of gave up on research. And then in 2019 when my first novel came out, I ended up writing this essay, and in the essay I mentioned Ms. Lung and how important she was to my development as a reader and as a than a writer. And, you know, and there you go, the essay somehow – it got to her. But that was only when I was doing a reading event for “The Haunting Of Hajji Hotak”.
SIMON: Well, let me – hang on to that thought.
SIMON: We are now joined by Susannah Lung. Thank you very much for being with us, Ms. Lung.
SUSANNAH LUNG: Oh, thank you, Scott, for inviting 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 at 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, sure, he didn’t look anything like he did then. He was just this little guy, and he had needs, and I was lucky to be able to fill them.
SIMON: What was that first phone conversation like?
LUNG: When Jamil’s dad called, I started crying because he was so grateful and, you know, I can’t – words can’t express.
SIMON: Oh, boy. You were making an appearance in Davis, California. Dozens of people turned out to applaud this fantastically successful author. Who have you seen?
KOCHAI: Well, you know, it’s funny because when I first went to present the book, I didn’t recognize her. It’s only afterwards. And I have to admit it was the – it was that same feeling of 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 sounded like.
LUNG: I was blown away. He put on weight.
LUNG: This guy – a little guy turned into a wonderful man who writes beautifully – writes beautifully.
SIMON: Yeah. Ms. Lung, what do you think is important to being a good teacher?
LUNG: I think passion. You don’t have a passion for it, it’s hard work. If you have a passion for it, it’s paradise.
SIMON: How does it feel to you, Mr. Kochai, to be able to personally thank this person? You know, we get, I don’t know, 20 or 30 teachers into our lives.
KOCHAI: To me, it looks like a miracle. I don’t know what else to call it. It was just this huge surprise, and I felt like – you know, I’m a writer, so I get into stories all the time, and so it was just the perfect ending to this long story.
SIMON: That has the makings of a great memoir, doesn’t it?
KOCHAI: I think so.
LUNG: If anyone can do him justice, you can.
KOCHAI: Thank you.
SIMON: Jamil Jan Kochai and his former teacher, Susannah Lung. Who knows who you’ll meet next on the road, Mr. Kochai?
KOCHAI: Hey, I can’t wait to be there.
SIMON: Well, thank you. And Ms. Lung, thank you. Thank you for what you have done for literature.
LUNG: Oh, thank you.
(SOUND EXTRACTION OF “SARAH-TONIN” BY HARRIS HELLER)
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