Sameeha Yara Malak Shaik, 17, is queen of this year's Barnum Festival.

Barnum Festival crowns Masuk junior as its queen of 2023


When Sameeha Yara Malak Shaik, 17, a Masuk High School junior, was pulled out of her physics class by counselor Ann Odoy one day in late February, she thought she was in trouble. But it was simply the first step toward her coronation as queen of this year’s Barnum Festival.

“I was not familiar with the Barnum Festival,” she recalled during an interview at Edith Wheeler Memorial Library. “I didn’t even know Masuk had a king and queen in previous years.”

Masuk Teacher William McDonough’s son Tristan served as king in 2018 and Kelsey Coville, the daughter of Masuk teacher Laurie Coville, served as queen in 2017. Matthew Winkler, another Masuk student, had the distinction of being Barnum king in 2015 and Tom Thumb 2008.

Shaik later learned high school teachers vote from among their schools’ top academically performing students to nominate candidates for the Barnum Royal Family.

“I’m really grateful for their votes and for allowing me to have all these new experiences,” she said. “I don’t know who voted for me, but thank you for believing in me.”

“We are so proud to have Yara selected as this year’s Barnum Queen,” Masuk Principal Steve Swensen said. “Yara is a natural born leader – both academically and socially. Through her work with clubs here at Masuk, she advocates for herself and others to showcase their cultures and to promote an all-inclusive student climate. She does this by spreading fun and renewing community spirit.”

Shaik is the daughter of Yasmin Mehraj and Abdul Rahman Shaik and she has a younger brother, Rayhaan, 15, a Masuk sophomore.

Sound advice

The close to 30 students from schools in the Greater Bridgeport area vying for the position of Barnum’s queen were asked to attend an interview with a panel of judges on March 21.

Because McDonough’s son had been chosen as king, Shaik asked the teacher for advice.

“I said, ‘know your history about P.T. Barnum and his involvement in Bridgeport,’ and not to be afraid to be out of your comfort zone,” McDonough recalled.

“I’m super excited for her,” he added. “Obviously, she made an impression because that’s what you have to do in the interview process. I think she will do a great job of representing Masuk and the P.T. Barnum Festival.”

Shaik said contestants who could not make one of the early events were the only ones to be eliminated before the Coronation Ball, and four or five could not make the interview.

On April 15, a social was held at the Sportsplex@Fairfield.

“Judges got to watch how we interacted,” Shaik said. “We did karaoke and played cornhole. There was food and dancing. We played Jenga. They wanted to see how outgoing you were with people.”

On May 7, the Coronation Ball was held at Vazzy’s Four Seasons in Stratford. A night of dancing led up to announcements of the members of the Royal Family, starting with the princes and princesses and ending with the king and queen.

“It was a surprise,” Shaik said. “We didn’t know there would be two princes and princesses.”

Ringmaster George Estrada announced the new queen.

“When he opened the envelop, he paused before reading it,” Shaik said. “When he started to say, ‘Sam …,’ my table started to cheer. I couldn’t believe I had won. It was more shock like, ‘this is real? Did he call my name?'”

“My family, they were all really proud of me,” she said. “They all expected me to win, but didn’t want to tell me.”

Looking the part

Ringmaster George Estrada, left, and Yara Shaik after receiving her crown.

When Shaik received her crown, two women, who are Royal Family coordinators, hugged her and said, “as soon as we saw you in that dress, we knew you would be queen.” And some people at the reception had told Shaik’s parents her dress was “queen-like.”

The Shaiks ordered the dress two weeks before for Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim celebration at the end of 30 days of fasting. The gown has a purple top and a pink skirt.

“Trying it on for the first time, my parents’ reaction and people at Eid was that this had to be the dress,” Shaik said.

The dress may have served Shaik well in the competition for Barnum’s queen, but she will have to embark on her reign without it.

“We are going dress shopping,” she said. “Someone stepped on it during the coronation dance and it ripped, probably doing the conga line. I didn’t know I would dance that much.”

The Barnum Royal Family ate together at the Whistle & Watch Luncheon and now members will participate in festival events. Shaik will be featured in parades and at the Barnum Car Show in Monroe on June 3.

Ringmaster George Estrada and the entire Barnum Royal Family.

The family also includes King Owen Bull of Trumbull High School, Prince Dillon Durante of Shelton High School, Prince Baeram Alfreh of Bunnell High School, Princess Kendra Mitacek of Notre Dame Fairfield and Princess Anastasia Stanis of Derby High School.

Rafael “Rafa” Gonzalez, 8, a Monroe Elementary School third grader, was chosen as this year’s Tom Thumb, and Catherine Emely Sather of Trumbull, a student at Discovery Magnet School, will star as his wife, Lavinia Warren.

Shaik will have to bring a special talent when the Royal Family goes on its Road Show, visiting assisted living facilities.

“I’ll probably do a dance,” she said. “I danced at a lot of culture fairs.”

When news circulated around Masuk that one of their own would be Barnum’s queen, Shaik said Coville was excited for her, because her daughter, Kelsey, had enjoyed all of the experiences when she was queen and she thought Shaik would too.

Shaik said she is already enjoying the connections with new friends from other schools and her experiences so far, adding she hopes to live up to the title.

Of course, while serving as queen, Shaik will still have to stay on top of her studies. Immediately after coming home from her coronation, she had to prepare for an early morning calculus exam at Masuk.

“Meanwhile, there’s a crown in the corner of my room I had just won,” she said, “so the win never really registered, because as soon as I won, I switched to calculus.”

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