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Essay winner gets to take classmates to see ‘Lion King’

Students to take field trip to see the show early next month

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Steve Marcus

Lion King cast member Niles Rivers (Simba) talks with fifth grader Daniel Hernandez on stage after Hernandez was announced as the winner of an essay contest during an assembly at Long Elementary School Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011. The essay by Hernandez was chosen as the winning essay in a district-wide essay contest. The prize is tickets to the Lion King show at Mandalay Bay for the entire school. Eighty-six schools participated with teachers choosing the best essay from each grade level into the competition.

Lion King Essay Winner

Fifth grader Daniel Hernandez is congratulated by classmates at Long Elementary School Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011. An essay by Hernandez was chosen as the winning essay in a district-wide essay contest. The prize is tickets to the Lion King show at Mandalay Bay for the entire school. Eighty-six schools participated with teachers choosing the best essay from each grade level into the competition. Launch slideshow »

It might have been the coolest school assembly this year — and it was just to announce an even better experience to come for these students.

It was a group of lions — well, human actors who play lions and other animals — that invaded Walter Long Elementary, home of the Leopards, Tuesday afternoon.

They came to announce that all the students and teachers at the school are going to see a performance of the “Lion King” at Mandalay Bay, thanks to a winning essay by student Daniel Hernandez.

But all of it was a surprise to the students.

They left their classrooms and quietly filed into the cafeteria of the school, which is near U.S. 95 and Charleston Boulevard, for the unexpected assembly.

Teachers had to shift the lines of students around the white tile floor to make an aisle. The principal, Joyce Brooks, raised her hand to quiet the students and then asked how many had seen the Lion King movie.

Every hand went up.

She then introduced Timon — aka Aaron De Jesus — and Pumbaa, played by Adam Kozlowski, to cheerful applause. With them were Lauryn Hardy and Nia Harris, who play Young Nala, and Tim Johnson Jr. and Zaire Adams, who play Young Simba.

They taught the students to sing “Hakuna Matata,” and at a key moment in the song, out popped Simba, played by Niles Rivers, in full costume.

When the song ended, Rivers announced the surprise: “Every student and every teacher at Walter Long Elementary is going to Mandalay Bay to see the ‘Lion King,’ ” he said.

Wild cheers greeted the news, but they quickly died down, prompting Rivers to ask for another cheer, and then a roar.

“Roaaaaarrrrr!”

“That was actually really nice,” Rivers said, chuckling, a little surprise that his impromptu request was granted.

Rivers then told the students why they were going to see “Lion King.” He didn’t even have to say the student’s name before some of the children figured it out and began pointing to Hernandez.

About 200 students from 84 schools entered the essay contest to get the 1,000 tickets in honor of the production’s 1,000th show. The students will take a field trip to the show in two shifts next month.

After the event, Hernandez said he wasn’t sure he was the winner, even though his classmates pointed him out: “I knew it could have been somebody else,” he said.

But it was his name that was called, and Hernandez got the loudest applause of the event.

The fifth-grader came up to the stage to give an acceptance speech: “I worked really hard on it and I made many, many, many changes to make it the best it could be,” he said before thanking his teachers.

His classmates thanked him for the field trip with another roar.

Rivers said he was impressed with the essay, which talks about the school’s efforts to help the community and explain the things they can learn from the “Lion King.”

“The spirit of our generations stays within us to help us when evil is before us as Simba did when he envisioned his father’s spirit to help him make the right decision,” the essay says.

“To have that kind of heartfelt expression come from a fifth-grader, it’s amazing,” Rivers said after the event. “I thought it was almost past his years.”

After the announcement came a final refrain of “Hakuna Matata” as the characters danced off stage and the principal came back up to send the wound-up students back to class.

“Let this be a lesson that you need to continue to work hard and strive for what you want,” Brooks said.

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