She was adrift until she got an unexpected offer: Reyes’s first-grade teacher would arrive at school an hour early every morning for a one-on-one lesson to teach her English.
“That was life-changing,” said Reyes. “To this day, I don’t know how far behind I would have been if no one had done that.”
Reyes went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and now works as an attorney at Williams & Connolly, where she is the co-head of the international disputes practice group. In 2017, she was honored as the Woman Lawyer of the Year by the D.C. Women’s Bar Association.
Much of Reyes’s work is pro bono, representing refugee organizations and challenging anti-asylum regulations.
For decades, Reyes wanted to thank the teacher who, on her own time and out of the goodness of her heart, taught her English. But Reyes couldn’t for the life of her remember her name. With no name, she didn’t know how to find her.
Recently, though, nearly 40 years after she left that teacher’s first-grade classroom, Reyes finally had the long-awaited opportunity to thank her.
Reyes became determined to track down the teacher in October, after seeing a friend’s first-grade daughter read full sentences from a children’s book. The memories flooded back.
“I don’t have kids, so I never realized how far behind I really was and could have remained,” said Reyes.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind that someone spent their mornings helping me. But in that moment, it really hit me,” she continued.
Reyes became fixated on finding her teacher. She started by posting on Facebook, asking for advice about where to begin her search. Coincidentally, a friend from college knew Jason Glass, the commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education.
Reyes immediately wrote him an email, explaining that she was looking for her first-grade teacher from the 1980-81 school year at Wilder Elementary in Louisville.
She outlined her backstory: “When I started elementary school, I couldn’t speak a word of English. I recall that my first-grade teacher came to school early regularly, on her own time, to help me get caught up on learning to speak, read and write English,” she wrote on Oct. 24.
Then she detailed her educational and professional pursuits, including her substantial pro bono work to help refugees gain asylum in the United States, which, she said, underscores the effect her teacher had on her.
“I often wonder whether this career would have been possible if I had not had someone spend her extra time to help me learn English and not fall behind or through the cracks,” Reyes wrote. “I would very much love to say thank you, and my life very likely wouldn’t have been possible, without you.”
To her disbelief and delight, the education department quickly determined that it was Pat Harkleroad — a Louisville educator of more than three decades — who had left an indelible mark on Reyes’s life.
When Harkleroad, 77, received a call from the department, “I was floored,” she said. “For someone to remember you after 40 years, that is just phenomenal.”
Reyes wasn’t the only one who remembered their regular tutoring sessions: “When I heard Ana’s name, I recognized it. I remembered her,” said Harkleroad.
Beyond the familiar name, Harkleroad remembered her student’s struggles in school and recalled several of Reyes’s standout qualities.
“She was very willing and eager to work, and she wanted to do anything and everything she could to learn,” said Harkleroad. “Her little mind was just like a sponge.”
Toni Konz Tatman, the chief communications officer at the Kentucky Department of Education, decided a reunion for the two women was in order.
“We know these kinds of connections happen every day in this country and around the world, with teachers and students. These are moments that should be celebrated and shared,” she said.
Konz Tatman corresponded with both women, and it was decided that Reyes would fly from D.C. to Kentucky (after testing negative for the coronavirus) to visit Harkleroad in November.
The countdown began.
Less than a month later, on Nov. 13, Reyes knocked on the door of Harkleroad’s Louisville home, her hands trembling.
“When I argue in court, I don’t often get too nervous, but for some reason, driving to her house, I was,” Reyes said.
Harkleroad opened the door and immediately embraced her former first-grade student. The reunion was captured on video.
“I was overcome with emotion,” said Reyes. “I’m not a hugger. Not only did I hug her back, but I held on for a while and said, ‘Thank you for everything.’”
Harkleroad was equally moved. “You have no idea how good this made me feel. Other people have given me praise, and I appreciate that, but nothing has been as great as what this has been for me. It has been so meaningful,” she said.
Reyes said she “felt overwhelming gratitude and thankfulness, and also a little bit of relief, because I was finally able to thank her.”
“In my work, I’ve tried to repay her by helping others,” she said.
“I think it made a big difference in my life in that one of the first interactions I had was with someone who was volunteering and giving their time and absorbing that that is how one should behave,” Reyes said. “It has made a big impact on how I try to help others and how I try to think about the world. It wasn’t just about teaching me English, it was teaching that we should all help each other and do what we can for each other. That was an important lesson, too.”
Reyes’s professional mentor Robert Barnett, a senior partner at Williams & Connolly, said he has watched her commitment to helping others through her legal work.
“Ana is paying it forward. She does incredibly important legal work for refugees, particularly asylum cases,” said Barnett. “Her own personal experiences have translated in adulthood into helping others, and that is to be admired and applauded.”
“What she has achieved is truly a great American success story,” he added. “She is a terrific person and another example of somebody coming to America and succeeding. There are families that are safe because of her work, and that was motivated by what someone did to help her.”
Harkleroad said she has always measured her own success by the success of her students.
“I did it because I loved Ana, and I did everything I could with all of my kids to get them to do as much as they were capable of doing,” she said. “All I knew was that I had this little girl that needed lots and lots of help, and I wanted to do as much as I could.”
During their reunion, the two shared stories from the past several decades. Harkleroad presented Reyes with a children’s book about the power of education, coupled with a heartfelt letter, in which she expressed her pride and sincere gratitude that Reyes felt compelled to find her.
“I can’t say enough about Ana, and how much I admire her. I am so proud of her,” said Harkleroad, who retired from teaching in 2005 and pivoted to volunteering for a local nonprofit organization that serves adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Reyes’s visit was a career highlight, she said, adding that they intend to stay in touch.
“I hope that if teachers read this, they know that somewhere along their teaching career, they have touched another person’s life, just like Ana,” she said.
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