Lawyer Reunites with 'Extraordinary' 1st Grade Teacher Who Helped Her Learn English 40 Years Later

"I don't think I would have the career I have today had it not been for her help," attorney Ana Reyes says of her first-grade teacher, Pat Harkleroad

Ana Reyes and Pat Harkleroad
Ana Reyes (left) and Pat Harkleroad. Photo: Kentucky Department of Education

More than 40 years later, an award-winning attorney reunited with the teacher who went above and beyond to help her overcome severe struggles during grade school in Kentucky.

Ana Reyes tells PEOPLE she has wanted to reach out to Pat Harkleroad over the decades after the former first-grade teacher at Wilder Elementary School in Louisville helped her learn English as a 6-year-old.

"It has always been with me that a teacher came to school early every morning to help me but I did not remember her name," says Reyes, 46. "I've thought about that countless times over the years and discussed it with many friends. I know I was incredibly lucky."

It wasn't until a recent encounter with a friend's daughter that Reyes decided to take action and reconnect with Harkleroad. And when the moment finally came on Friday, the two were overcome with emotion.

"Being able to say thank you to someone who changed my life felt so meaningful and uplifting," says Reyes. "And realizing that Mrs. Harkleroad is just as wonderful as I remembered her was very affirming. I know I will never forget the day."

Adds Harkleroad, 77: "I knew I had a job to do, and I wasn't gonna let this girl fall through the cracks. She was willing to work hard and do all the things that made her successful, and with her success, it made me also feel successful."

Ana Reyes and Pat Harkleroad
Ana Reyes and Pat Harkleroad. Kentucky Department of Education

Long before Reyes pursued her legal career — she's now the co-head of international practice disputes and a member of the executive committee at the Williams & Connolly firm in Washington D.C. — she and her family immigrated to the United States.

Prior to living in America, her family resided in Montevideo, Uruguay and Barcelona, Spain. Because those were primarily Spanish-speaking countries, Reyes, then 5, did not speak any English, which made learning in an American classroom nearly impossible.

"I recall feeling generally confused and out of place during kindergarten when I couldn’t speak any English at all," she says, noting how her classmates would often single her out, give her false information to embarrass her and be mean to her.

"The kids told me that the English word for 'agua' [water] was 'Coke.' I remember asking for 'Coke' and being so confused with the responses I got from adults," she explains. "That sticks with you... I had that persistent feeling of being 'other.'"

Eventually, Reyes moved on to the first grade but was still struggling with academics. Harkleroad immediately noticed and arranged with Reyes' mom to have her come in each day before school and get one-on-one tutoring.

"If she had not done that, I may have fallen so far behind that I could not have caught up. Certainly, my academic career would have been quite different," Reyes explains.

While it meant the world to Reyes, Harkleroad insists she was just doing what was expected of any teacher.

"I knew I had to do something to help," she says. "That was my job and I couldn’t leave a child behind just because she didn’t know English. No matter if I had to come early or stay late, I wanted her to be a part of our classroom and school system."

Harkleroad recalls how Reyes "had the will and desire to learn, and soaked up everything like a little sponge."

Soon, she had mastered the language, which allowed Reyes to seamlessly continue on with her education.

By fourth grade, Reyes was placed in the gifted and talented program. Years later, she graduated from Atherton High School, Transylvania University and Harvard Law School before earning her master's in international public policy from Johns Hopkins University.

All the while, Reyes kept Harkleroad in the back of her mind.

"It made a large difference in my life that one of my early interactions was with someone who volunteered her time to help me," she explains. "I absorbed that that was how I should behave, and to help others when I can."

Ana Reyes and Pat Harkleroad
Ana Reyes and Pat Harkleroad looking back on grade school memories. Kentucky Department of Education

"I have worked hard to pay Mrs. Harkleroad's selflessness forward by helping others," she continues. "In my career, that has included representing refugees pro bono, and refugee organizations, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Human Rights First, in immigration cases."

Meanwhile, Harkleroad, who was 36 when she taught Reyes, continued to work in the Wilder classrooms until 2005. She later went on work at St. Mary's Center, a local nonprofit agency that helps adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and is now retired.

A few weeks ago, Reyes was playing with her friends' first-grade daughter and got inspired to reconnect with Harkleroad.

"I noticed that she was reading books and cards from a game we were playing," she recalls. "I always knew that my first-grade teacher had helped me catch up on English. But, not having children myself, I did not realize how far behind I was."

Reyes asked for help via Facebook before being directed to the Kentucky Department of Education, which put her in contact with Harkleroad.

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"I was somewhat in disbelief, but mainly just thrilled," she says. "I couldn’t wait to see her again... I don’t think I would have the career I have today had it not been for her help, and I wanted to let her know the difference she made in my life."

Upon receiving a call from Reyes, Harkleroad says she was equally as "floored."

"I couldn’t believe it," she says. "I was so glad that she thought enough of me to want to meet with me again and to think I had a small part in her success."

During their emotional reunion, which took place after they were tested for COVID-19, the pair caught up on the past 40 years while Reyes expressed her gratitude for her former teacher.

"What Mrs. Harkleroad did for me was extraordinary, and I am positive that she has helped thousands of other children," Reyes says. "When you help one person, you also help all the people that person goes on to help... So the help Mrs. Harkleroad gave four decades ago continues to this day and going forward."

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