Sierra Hayes: How City Year gave me “Xavier Moments”

Sierra is a corps member serving on the Case Foundation Team at Simon Elementary School.  At our Idealism in Action gala this Wednesday, she spoke about her time at City Year and her student, Xavier. Read below to see what she said: 

Good evening.  My name is Sierra Hayes.  I’m 23 years old and I grew up not too far from here in Prince George’s County.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a softie.  That is to say, I have always had a big heart when it comes to people who are just a little different.

I think I developed this compassion because of my older brother, Brian.   Brian is amazing.  But Brian is also a little bit different.  You see, Brian was born with only three fingers on his left hand.  In the whole grand scheme of things, this really is no big deal.  And it hasn’t stopped Brian from doing what he wants to do in life. But growing up – and especially in school – being different like that was pretty tough on him.

I remember seeing kids pick on Brian.  And I remember teachers telling Brian what he “couldn’t” do.  There was one time when Brian wanted to join the school band and play saxophone.  The teacher – in front of the whole class – told him that he couldn’t play because of his hand.  Brian was crushed.

Sierra Hayes at the Idealism in Action Gala
Graeme Meyer | 2012

After that day, I remember my Mom signed us up for piano lessons with this amazing instructor.  This woman would actually bring two sets of music to our lessons – the standard book for me, and sheets of the same music that SHE wrote specially for Brian that he could play using only 3 fingers.  I will never forget this.

After finishing undergrad at Sewanee University of the South, I joined City Year because, like the piano teacher, I wanted to find a way to reach kids that others may have given up on.

This year, I serve on a team with 8 other corps members at Simon Elementary School in Southeast DC.  My teammates and I work every day, providing in-class support, doing one-on-one and small group literacy and math tutoring, running lunch-time behavior clubs, and facilitating the after-school program.

Specifically, I work in a class with 26 2nd graders, with a teacher who has taught in DC Public Schools for over 30 years.  She is incredibly patient and cares deeply about her students.

But I remember at the beginning of the year, it was just me and my teacher in the classroom and she told me: “Sierra, I can’t give all 26 of these kids the attention they need on a daily basis.  You gotta help me.”

What I realized very early-on is that my teacher was right.  As amazing as she is, 1 adult for 26 students just doesn’t allow her to spend the amount of time with each student that is really necessary.  Because the reality is, almost ALL of the students need help in some way.  Whether it is doing one-on-one literacy tutoring with Tasha or helping Calvin with his homework in after-school, there really isn’t a student in my class that doesn’t need extra help at some time, on some thing.

Then there is Xavier.  Xavier reminds me of my brother because, well, he’s naturally a smart kid.  Xavier also has an incredibly vivid imagination.  He loves to tell elaborate stories and think-up fun games to play.  I sometimes say that while so many of my 2nd graders try so hard to act like adults, Xavier just desperately wants to be a kid.

Because Xavier is not like the other kids, he gets bullied a lot by his classmates.  I noticed that as the year went on, the bullying really started to affect him.  He is a pretty sensitive kid and his response was to crawl into kind of a shell throughout the day.  He started to drift-off during lessons.  And he became scared to participate in class.  As a result, his academic performance began to suffer.

I will never forget this one day.  It was during lunch and I was headed to the “City Year room” to grab some materials to run my mentoring club.  Xavier followed me down the hallway.  I noticed that he had some tears running down his face because some other kids had picked-on him.  Xavier asked if he could stay with me.

I took Xavier into the City Year room and popped him some popcorn.  We talked about why kids sometimes pick on other kids.  And I told him how smart I think he is and that he shouldn’t be afraid to show his intelligence out of fear for how other kids will treat him.

My teacher and I were a little concerned about Xavier, so we put him on my “focus list” of students to work with on his in-class behavior.

To help Xavier, I realized that – in addition to the teacher – I needed to become someone in the class that he could feel safe around.  I did this by implementing little strategies throughout the day.  For example, I noticed that Xavier was always the last to leave the classroom when it was time for lunch or recess.  The reason was because he was scared to be in the hallway with the other kids.  So now, when it’s time to leave the class, I simply make sure I slip out into the hallway first, so Xavier feels confident leaving the room.  It is little things like this that have helped Xavier feel more comfortable throughout the day.

And I’ve noticed that as Xavier has grown more comfortable in school, he is starting to reach his full academic potential.  In fact, this year, Xavier has improved his literacy score by 48 points — a 35% increase from the start of the year!  And actually, Xavier’s improvement is not unique, 92% of the students my teammates and I have tutored this year at Simon have improved their literacy scores.

It makes me sad to think about what could have happened to Xavier this year without an extra set of eyes in the classroom watching out for him.  I fear that he may have started to give up on school.  As sad as I am that soon I won’t be seeing Xavier on a daily basis, it gives me comfort to know that City Year will be back at Simon next year and in 3rd grade, he’ll have another City Year corps member watching out for him.

But the truth is, as much impact as I feel I have had on Xavier, he has had an equal affect on me.  I remember the day that I got waitlisted from my first-choice grad program.  I was pretty low in spirits.  Xavier walked up to me, and said “Ms. Sierra, do you know what solves all my problems? …… You do!”  And he wrapped his arms around me.

I call moments like these “Xavier Moments” – those little times where you feel love, compassion, and a connection to someone else. I tell my teammates and family that they each should strive to have at least one “Xavier Moment” every day.

Xavier joins Sierra on stage with smiles and laughter all around
Graeme Meyer | 2012

I’m sure everyone here can think of the Xavier Moments throughout their days – and in their lives.  But in case you haven’t yet had your Xavier Moment today, I thought we would all share one right now.



SIERRA:  Everyone, this is Xavier.  Xavier, can you say “Hi?”

[XAVIER: HI (audience chuckles and he puts his chin down to speak into the microphone)]

Tonight, we are going to teach you something that Xavier made up this year.  We do it when we are glad to see each other or to celebrate an accomplishment.

Xavier – can you tell everyone what we are going to teach them?

XAVIER: The Angry Birds High Five.

SIERRA:  That’s right, it’s called the Angry Birds High-Five.  Xavier, can you explain how it’s done?


Demonstrating the Angry Birds High Five
Graeme Meyer | 2012

SIERRA:  Now, let’s all have an Xavier Moment.  Everyone, turn to the person next to you and give them an Angry Birds High-Five.  Ready?  First, pull your fingers back.   Now let it FLY!!!

Thank you everybody.


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