- In the past, Ana Reyes made efforts to contact the teacher who helped change her life, but couldn’t find her because she couldn’t remember the teacher’s name.
- After connecting with KDE and receiving Pat Harkleroad’s name, Reyes had her opportunity.
By Jacob Perkins
(LOUISVILLE, KY) – Ana Reyes spent decades hoping to reconnect with her 1st-grade teacher, but a recent encounter with one of her friend’s children made that hope a reality.
Reyes and her family immigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old. Before that, she spent time in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Barcelona, Spain.
While she doesn’t recall much from her life before her family was in the U.S., she does remember the difficulties of integrating into a new culture without knowing the language.
After moving to Louisville in 1979, Reyes began her education at Wilder Elementary (Jefferson County).
“What I remember most was in kindergarten being really confused,” she said. “I remember not knowing how to interact with people and not always knowing what was going on. Instructions would be given, but unless I was watching what other people did, I wouldn’t necessarily know what the instructions meant.”
In the beginning, it was difficult for Reyes to make friends. She recalled a moment in kindergarten when a couple of her classmates were playing with building blocks. Reyes eagerly wanted to join in on the fun, but the other children wouldn’t let her play with them.
“I remember that that was frustrating,” she said. “I went down to sit for story time and I couldn’t understand the story at all. I was frustrated and bored. I looked over at the building of blocks. I quietly got up, I went over to it and pushed it down.”
Reyes still was struggling with the language when she entered 1st grade. Her teacher vowed to help her learn so Reyes could catch up to the other students and came in early before the school day to assist.
“That was life-changing,” Reyes said. “To this day, I don’t know how far behind I would have been if no one had done that.”
By 4th grade, Reyes found herself in the gifted and talented program. She went on to graduate from Atherton High School’s (Jefferson County) International Baccalaureate program and then Transylvania University in 1996. After taking a year off, she attended Harvard Law School and graduated in 2000. Then in 2014, she earned her master’s in international public policy from Johns Hopkins University.
Reyes is now co-head of the International Practice Disputes practice and a member of the Executive Committee at Williams & Connolly LLP, a law firm based in Washington, D.C.
Throughout her career, she has done a considerable amount of pro bono work representing refugee organizations and refugees seeking asylum in the United States. In 2017, she was named the D.C. Women’s Bar Association’s Woman Lawyer of the Year.
With all of her accomplishments, Reyes often wondered whether her career would have been possible if someone had not spent that extra time to help her learn English.
Over the years, she made efforts to contact the teacher who helped change her life, but couldn’t find her because she couldn’t remember the teacher’s name.
While visiting with some friends recently, Reyes noticed their daughter, who was in 1st grade, reading complete sentences and children’s books. Since Reyes does not have children of her own, this was eye-opening to see how far behind she was during her early years at Wilder.
“I knew the teacher came in early to teach me English and how to read, but I didn’t realize I was so far behind,” she said. “It sort of hit me at that moment.”
Reyes knew she needed to find a way to get in contact with her teacher. After she posted on Facebook asking for advice on where to begin, a friend who had attended a teacher preparation program with Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass recommended she contact him to see if he and the Kentucky Department of Education could help.
One email and two days later, Reyes had a name to go with the memories. She would finally be able to thank the teacher who not only helped her learned the language, but also sent her down a lifelong path of volunteer work and helping other immigrants.
“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.”
Originally from Piney Flats, Tenn., a small community in the eastern part of the state, Pat Harkleroad and her husband, Jack, moved to Louisville after he received a job offer from International Harvester.
A graduate of East Tennessee State University, Harkleroad began her teaching career at Wilder in 1970, following in the footsteps of the many teachers in her family.
“My whole family has ended up being teachers,” she said. “I had aunts who were teachers and that’s just what we knew we wanted to be because that’s what they were. You could either be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary, that was about it when I graduated.”
Harkleroad recalls her classroom always being vibrant and full of color so she could get the most out of her students.
“If you could have seen my classroom when I had all these little children in 1st grade,” she said. “My classroom was filled with color and life. I just wanted to fill these children’s minds with as much as I could and have as much fun learning as we could.”
When Reyes walked into her classroom in 1980, Harkleroad knew she needed to do something to help her catch up with the other students, but wasn’t quite sure where to begin.
She went to her colleagues at Wilder, who suggested starting with photos of common classroom items so Reyes could become more familiar with the school setting around her.
“That’s what I did for probably a week or so to help get her acclimated,” Harkleroad said. “I just did a lot of talking with her at first.”
With the approval of Reyes’ mother, Lilliam Decastelli, Harkleroad began meeting with her early for one-on-one lessons.
“Her mother brought her every morning and we met in the classroom before the rest of the children came,” Harkleroad said. “Once I taught her a few words, I even got her started in our reading program. She caught on really, really fast. She was just like a little sponge. Everything that I handed out to her, the next day she would know.”
Even though these lessons were outside of the typical workday, Harkleroad said she had no problem coming in early each day to assist Reyes.
“That was my job to do that,” she said. “I felt responsible for taking her into my room and helping her as much as I could and that’s the reason I tutored her. I would have done anybody that way.”
Harkleroad suffered a heart attack in 1998 and though she was not ready to leave the classroom, she decided to retire. However, after regaining her health, she returned to Wilder on a part-time basis to help teach music, remedial reading and assist the school’s gifted and talented program until 2005.
After serving the students of Wilder for 35 years, she shifted her focus to the students at St. Mary’s Center, a nondenominational, nonprofit agency serving more than 150 adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities in the Louisville area.
This project was especially important to Harkleroad because her son, Brad, has Down syndrome and takes classes at the center.
“I’ve had a variety of things that I have gotten to do during my time in teaching and I really have enjoyed it tremendously,” she said. “I continue to teach. It’s just in my blood and I’ll probably do that until the day I die.”
Since fully retiring, Harkleroad has been primarily focused on her family, not realizing that all this time Reyes has been carrying her generosity alongside her.
When she found out Reyes had been searching for her, she said she “was absolutely floored.”
“It was such an honor for her to even think of me,” Harkleroad said. “I’ve just been overwhelmed with the idea that she could remember me and think that I was a part of her education career. It just feels so good.”
Once Reyes had Harkleroad’s name, she booked a flight back home to Louisville to visit her mother. She took a COVID-19 test to ensure she was negative for the virus and on Nov. 13, following masking guidelines, Reyes and Harkleroad were able to have the reunion that was four decades in the making.
Around 9 a.m. ET, Reyes made her way up the driveway of Harkleroad’s home in Louisville. Admittedly nervous, she rang the doorbell and was welcomed with a warm embrace.
The reunion began with pastries, coffee and orange juice. After that, both Reyes and Harkleroad sat down on the couch to finally catch up after all this time.
Reyes’ legs were shaking due to nerves as she read aloud the email she sent to Glass.
“My family moved to the U.S. when I was about 5 years old,” she read. “When I started elementary school, I couldn’t speak a word of English. I recall that my 1st-grade teacher at Wilder Elementary School in Louisville came to school early regularly, on her own time, to help me get caught up on learning to speak, read and write English.”
Holding back tears, Reyes continued, “I would very much love to say thank you, and that my life very likely wouldn’t have been possible without you.”
Reassuringly, Harkleroad placed her hand on Reyes’ leg and told her she did not need to thank her for anything.
“You know, you do what you need to do,” said Harkleroad. “When you came to school, we knew we had a job to do and we were going to do it.”
The two talked about their lives since the 1980-1981 school year. Reyes, now an award-winning attorney and Harkleroad, now retired and taking care of her husband and son, flipped through old photos and reminisced on moments from their lives.
Harkleroad even had gifts for Reyes, including the book “One Girl” by Andrea Beaty. In the book, Beaty notes that millions of young girls are denied education each year. The girl in the book is opened up to a new world as she reads, and is inspired to share her story with other girls around the world.
“When I read the whole thing, knowing about all that you have accomplished, this was the perfect book,” Harkleroad said to Reyes. “It couldn’t be any better.”
The book resonated deeply with Reyes, as she said the most important refugee case she has handled in her career had to do with a group of girls who were kidnapped and persecuted for trying to learn.
“They were able to escape,” she said. “We were able to get them visas to come into the United States and we were able to get each of them asylum. Now they have graduated from high school, they’re in college and they’re doing great.”
After promising to stay in touch, the reunion came to an end with another embrace. After 40 years, Reyes finally was able to give thanks to the teacher who made sure she did not fall through the cracks.
Even though Reyes has immense gratitude for the time and effort put in by Harkleroad, she credits Kentucky’s public education system as a whole for where she is today.
“Kentucky public school teachers have definitely shaped my life and shaped my ability to have the career I have,” she said. “I just don’t think it could have started off any better than the lessons and compassion that Mrs. Harkleroad gave.”
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