Instrumental musicians shine on stage during the Fifth Grade Variety Show at Walker Elementary School. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

Fifth grade students at Walker Elementary School embraced a treasured tradition last month with creativity, resilience and a drive to keep people connected during a pandemic that has kept them apart.

To roars of applause, they presented their annual variety show Jan. 28 before a live audience of students from all three fifth-grade classrooms, their teachers and Walker staff members, including Principal James Gray.

“The Fifth Grade Variety Show has been a longstanding Walker tradition. Our [fifth grade] students enjoyed being all back together in the auditorium for the first time in several years,” Gray said. “The variety show felt normal in a year that has been anything but normal.”

Family members had the opportunity to tune in digitally on Zoom. With support from Walker staff, students leveraged technology to get the best of both worlds: the human connection of an in-person event and the inclusiveness of a virtual event.

Students contributed in many ways to the show’s success. They introduced the acts as emcee, performed vocal and instrumental pieces, presented comedy skits and magic tricks and cheered their classmates. After performing, variety show participants returned to the audience, which allowed them to enjoy the show and support each other.

Students cheer on their classmates at the variety show, a longtime tradition at Walker School. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

Paige Schoonyoung held center stage during the “The Magnificent Magical Magic Show,” but she focused on her role as an audience member when asked what she liked most about being in the show.

“It was fun. I really liked looking at others, because they were really good,” said Paige, a student in Kelly Oldfield’s fifth grade class.

“We’ve been doing it for years – long before I was here,” Oldfield said in an interview about the variety show.

“We usually do it the day before winter break begins, but because we had so many kids out with COVID … we rescheduled [to Jan. 28]. This is completely student-led. They come up with their acts, they practice, they do it all on their own. We just facilitate the show.”

In 2020-2021, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an entire year of remote learning for many students. Still, the Fifth Grade Variety Show went on – online, that is – with recorded skits. This school year, when the show went hybrid to combine the face-to-face event with a virtual online component, some students chose to prerecord their skits. They were projected on a screen in the auditorium, allowing both the live audience and remote attendees to view the acts.

Denzel Ejiofor was one of a group of students who worked to create a prerecorded comedy skit for the show.

“It took the whole lunch recess to record our skit,” Denzel said. “It was just for fun.”

Another group of students offered a live performance of instrumental music. Melaun Combs, who takes violin lessons at Walker, was among the student musicians.

“I had never done something like this before, at a school,” Melaun said. “It was really exciting. … Even though we didn’t do it exactly as planned, we still did a good job. … We had lots of fun.”

Myana Cooke sings “Gaslight,” by Willow, in the Walker auditorium. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

Performing on a school stage was a first for Myana Cooke as well.

“I enjoyed being in the variety show. It was very fun to try something new, because I have never sung in front of an actual audience before. I have social anxiety, so this was a big step for me,” said Myana, who performed “Gaslight” by Willow.

Although school events and traditions may shift, they create lifelong memories and unite people around the shared responsibility to support one another.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to present challenges for these time-honored practices, but, for the Walker School community, it appears to have resulted in a greater appreciation of their importance.

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.