Let me tell you a story. This is Susannah Lung. She taught me to read and write in a single year when I was 7 years old. I’ve been looking for Susannah, hoping to thank her in person, for almost twenty years. And then she surprised me at my reading last night.
I came to the US at 1 and a half years old, but I grew up in a household that only spoke Pashto & Farsi, so when I started kindergarten, I didn’t know a word of English.
I don’t think my kindergarten teacher knew how to handle an ESL student because he used to punish me for not understanding his directions.
We moved a lot in those days as my father searched for better work and housing, and I went to three different schools in 1 year. I continued to struggle with English. Then, after first grade ended, my family went back to Afghanistan for the summer. I fell in love with Logar, but I’d completely forgotten all the English I’d learned in school!
I remember on the morning of my first day in 2nd grade, I could only recall 10 letters from the alphabet. I was way behind and on track to be left back. But then I had the fortune of meeting Mrs. Lung.
Mrs. Lung sat with me almost every single day after school, giving me extra lessons in reading and writing so I could catch up with the rest of the class. By the end of the year, I’d learned to read and write, and by third grade, I was winning awards for reading comprehension.
After that, my family moved a few times more and I lost track of Mrs. Lung. For years afterward, all throughout high school and college, I tried to find Mrs. Lung, to thank her for everything she’d done for me. I searched google and social media.
I called my old school and visited the district office. But I kept hitting dead ends. The main problem was that I didn’t know Mrs. Lung’s first name! She’d always just been Mrs. Lung to me. In my mid-20s, I’d pretty much given up on the search. I figured Mrs. Lung had moved on to a new state, a new life.
But a few years earlier, after 99 Nights in Logar came out, someone reached out to me out of the blue on Facebook.
It was Mrs. Lung’s husband! Apparently, Allen Lung heard about an article I wrote for LitHub where I mentioned Mrs. Lung. He asked me if I wanted to speak with her, and I said of course!
My family and I all gathered together for the call. My parents had been wanting to thank Mrs. Lung for years as well. When I finally got the chance to hear Mrs. Lung’s voice, tears welled up in my eyes.
I told her that everything I’d accomplished I owed to her, and that I thought of her all the time, and that I’d been searching for her for years.
Unfortunately, this was at the height of the pandemic, and we were still quarantining at the time.
We promised to meet in the future. After that, my wife and I had a child, the Afghan Government collapsed, my beloved grandmother died, I finished at Stanford, and I published my second book The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories. It was a hectic time, and we lost touch.
But then, last night, after my reading, Mrs. Lung’s husband, Allen, rushed up to me, introduced himself, and brought me over to Mrs. Lung, and seven-year-old me finally got to hug my 2nd-grade teacher again. We chatted and smiled.
I signed her book and tried to write on the page what I couldn’t express with my voice. I took down their numbers and invited them for dinner.
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.
Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed to encounter a series of remarkable teachers that have given me their time and consideration and knowledge, but everything really began with Mrs. Lung.
And I thought it was important that people hear her story, and that they know how much one teacher, in one year, can change a child’s entire life.
Thank you Susannah Lung!!
About the Author:
Jamil Jan Kochai is the author of 99 Nights in Logar (Viking, 2019), a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. He was born in an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, but he originally hails from Logar, Afghanistan. His short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares, and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018. Currently, he is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
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