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A Poignant Thank-You for Teacher Who Helped Future Attorney Learn English

Kentucky teacher's efforts transformed the life of a girl who went on to Harvard Law School

Two women sit on a couch

Courtesy Toni Konz Tatman

Pat Harkleroad, right, rests her head on Ana Reyes’ shoulder during their first meeting in nearly 40 years.

En español | Ana Reyes is a successful attorney at one of the nation's premier law firms whose practice includes pro bono work for refugees. But she clearly remembers feeling lost and disconnected as a first-grader who only spoke Spanish after moving to America.

Today, she knows she couldn't have made a difference for others without the teacher who spent early-morning hours tutoring Reyes to help her learn English and succeed in school.

For years, Reyes, now 46, wanted to thank the first-grade teacher who gave her one-on-one attention at a critical time in her life when she had recently arrived in the United States from Spain. Those sessions changed the 6-year-old Reyes from a bored and confused child into a gifted student and altered the trajectory of her life.

"It has meant so much to me to have her back in my life and to know that I meant something to her. I did it because I cared."

— Pat Harkleroad

With the help of Facebook and a heartfelt letter to the Kentucky commissioner of education, Reyes quickly learned that her teacher's name was Pat Harkleroad, now 77, and tracked her down. After testing negative for COVID-19, they scheduled a reunion in the retired teacher's Louisville home.

As they sat in Harkleroad's living room, Reyes read the letter she sent to the state. By the time she reached the final line — “I would like very much to say thank you and that my life very likely wouldn't have been possible without her” — the retired teacher was wiping away tears before they could roll under her mask.

Establishing a strong connection

A few weeks later on a Zoom call, the two sounded like long-lost friends as they talked about the one-hour early-morning sessions in which Harkleroad taught the young Reyes how to speak, and then read, in English.

"I would help all of my children. That's what I did,” Harkleroad says. “There are teachers out there who work very, very, very hard and are conscientious, who would have done the same thing."

In 1980, though, Louisville did not have many students like Reyes, who lived in Uruguay and Spain for the first five years of her life. Harkleroad did not have any curriculum to guide her or personal experience to draw from. She turned to her colleagues at Wilder Elementary School for advice.

"The consensus was that you start at the beginning like you would a small child — name objects, teach letters and teach colors — and do a tremendous amount of talking and reading,” Harkleroad says.

With the one-on-one attention and the focus on building knowledge slowly, Reyes began to understand English and quickly started reading, the teacher recalled.

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As for Reyes, she does not remember the details of the early-morning lessons. She does recall how difficult it was to wake up for them — and how they gave her confidence.

"I remember that I felt better having had the sessions,” Reyes says. “I always felt that if she hadn't done that I would have been very far behind and not knowing if I would have been able to catch up."

With her new English skills, Reyes started to connect with her peers — something she failed to do in kindergarten — and understand what Harkleroad was teaching during class.

By the end of elementary school, Reyes was in gifted education classes. She went on to graduate from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and then from Harvard Law School.

Today, she is co-head of the international disputes practice at law firm Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C. As part of her job, she does pro bono work for immigrants seeking asylum.

Harkleroad taught at Wilder full time until 1998 and then switched to part time, tutoring students in reading, teaching music and assisting with the gifted-and-talented program.

Today, she is retired and continues to live in Louisville, where her Christmas tree is decorated with more than a dozen ornaments that were gifts from former students.

'I did it because I cared'

During the reunion, the teacher and her student looked at pictures from the early 1980s and shared coffee, tea and baked goods. They talked so much that Reyes said she did not have the chance to finish her scone.

They've since continued to connect. In a video chat a few weeks later, they seemed to know each other well. Harkleroad recognized Reyes’ puppy, Scout, who wiggled on her lap throughout the call. Reyes talked about Harkleroad's adult son's upcoming skiing competition in the Special Olympics.

When Reyes described a lawsuit she was preparing to file to block the implementation of federal rules that would restrict asylum cases, her former teacher encouraged her. “I have all my confidence in you, my dear,” Harkelroad said. Just like she did during those early-morning tutoring sessions.

"I think what I've enjoyed the most is … we have a relationship now that will last a lifetime,” the retired teacher added. “It has meant so much to me to have her back in my life and to know that I meant something to her. I did it because I cared.”