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The talented writer didn’t even understand the language that would bring him so much success until he had a teacher who believed in him.

Becoming a published author is hard, and becoming a celebrated and award-winning novelist is even harder. Jamil Jan Kochai, author of 99 Nights in Logar and The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, is all of those things thanks to his beautiful words and mastery of the English language.

There was a time, though, when Kochai didn’t even understand English and was shamed by educators when he was trying to learn it. Thanks to an intervention from a patient and inspiring teacher, Kochai was able to turn his life around. 

Why One Little Boy Was Discouraged at School

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Photo by RODNAE Productions

Jamil Jan Kochai was born to Afghani parents in a refugee camp in Pakistan. He moved to California when he was only a year old, but wasn’t exposed to English until he started school because his parents spoke Farsi and Pashto at home.

The early years at school were rough on little Jamil. He had trouble understanding and speaking English, and was punished when he didn’t follow instructions to the letter or got confused due to his poor language skills. He was discouraged and thought maybe he would never master the language of his new home. Then, he got a new teacher, Mrs. Lung, who changed everything. 

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Jamil started the second grade a little beaten down by his school experience, but full of creative energy and a thirst for learning. All he needed was a little support and someone who believed in him. Luckily, he would find that in his teacher, Mrs. Lung. 

“From the beginning of second grade, I was set up to most likely be held back to some degree. But fortunately that’s when I met Mrs. Lung,” Jamil said.

Susannah Lung was Kochai’s teacher. She quickly noticed that he was having trouble keeping up and devoted herself to helping Kochai catch up. She sat with him after school almost every single day, reading with him and helping him learn.

How One Teacher Had a Profound Impact on a Little Boy

Thanks to her efforts, his English caught up with his classmates’, and he began to thrive in school. When the Kochai family moved away the following year, Jamil lost track of his teacher, but he never forgot her. 

Jamil went on to become a celebrated author, becoming a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. He searched unsuccessfully for his teacher for almost 20 years, even contacting the school where she taught him — he wanted to let her know how much she had impacted his life. He had never known her first name, so he struggled to get in contact with her. Finally, they were able to connect by phone. 

“I got to talk to her and we had a long conversation, and I finally got to explain to her how much she meant to me and how much that single year, you know, how much it changed my life,” Jamil said.

How a Celebrated Author Reconnected With His Teacher

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Photo by Pixabay

When the two were finally able to connect, it was purely through chance. Jamil had mentioned the effect his teacher had on him in a 2019 LitHub article, which Lung’s neurologist just happened to read. At an appointment, he mentioned the article to her and asked if she was the teacher mentioned in it. Surprised, Mrs. Lung confirmed that she was.

Lung’s husband Allen then reached out to the author on Facebook, but his message went into a secondary folder and Jamil didn’t see it for almost a year. When he finally saw it, he connected with the Lungs and phoned them up. He wanted to meet them in person, but wasn’t able to because it was the middle of the pandemic and his first child had just been born. Their reunion was put off once again.

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Finally, Jamil and the Lungs reconnected when they surprised him at a reading for his newest book The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories. He didn’t know they would attend, and was thrilled when Mr. Lung came up and introduced himself.

Jamil once again expressed his gratitude to Mrs. Lung — she had changed his life forever and had been instrumental in getting him where he was today. Mrs. Lung said she always knew Jamil was bright, creative, and would make something of himself. She wasn’t surprised to find out that he was a successful author. 

How a Teacher Proved the Importance of Encouraging Young Minds

woman teaching little boy
Photo by Mikhail Nilov

While Mrs. Lung had had such a profound impact on Jamil, she maintains that she was just doing what she loves most — teaching.

“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 lift off into the sky. Mrs. Lung, he said, was my spark,” Jamil said.

Mrs. Lung believes that anyone who truly has a teacher’s heart would do what she did, including staying late every single day to help one child improve his reading. She stays humble about her contribution to society, saying, “If it’s your passion and what you love doing, then it’s not a big deal. That’s what teachers do.”

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