In these two photos snapped by friends of Steve Pokin, he is running. He is upright in both. (Photos: submitted)

OPINION |

Sometimes I think about my Reading Buddy, as well as the day I went to read to him and, instead, was sent to the nurse’s office.

I volunteered as a Reading Buddy in 2016 through Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Ozarks. I did so because it was a worthy cause and because Amos Bridges, who back then was a newsroom colleague, did it and found it worthwhile.

My Reading Buddy was in first grade at Weaver Elementary.

He would bounce around to a couple of different schools in Springfield over the next few years because of family dynamics.

For most of one year, he lived in Nixa and I didn’t see him. But he moved back.

We met during his lunchtime, which was 20-25 minutes. He would eat and I would typically have a bag of chips and a soda. Then we would read.

At most of the schools he attended, we met in the library, which I preferred. At one school we sat in a hallway for reasons I never fully understood.

I liked him. He overcame his shyness, and I got to know him well enough to realize he was a bright kid.

He asked if I could see him through the TV

That first year when he was in first grade, I was on TV Friday mornings. He once said he saw me on the screen and asked if I could see him through the TV.

He occasionally got in trouble at school, and he wasn’t always fond of reading.

Nevertheless, we read.

He preferred books where you really didn’t have to read that much. Such as books with elaborate drawings where, for example, you had to find the horseshoe or the toy soldier or the cat.

He wasn’t a great reader, and he was aware of that. At times he suggested I simply read to him.

Nope, I said. That’s not the deal.

The flip the juice carton competition

We did more than reading. We competed at how many consecutive times you could flip his juice carton into the air — only a few inches off the surface of the table — and have it land squarely on its bottom.

He liked this. He was good at it.

I surprised him one day by hitting 20 consecutive flips, my personal record. I also remember the day he did 45, and I thought about buying a juice carton so I could practice at home.

We also played a few card games.

A couple of times I forgot and felt awful

I enjoyed seeing him. A couple of times over the years I got wrapped up in a news story and went into that reporting zone where time collapses, and I completely and totally forgot to go see him.

I would finish the story, come up for air and have a gnawing feeling I had forgotten something important.

I felt awful.

In those instances, I would go see him a different day of the week rather than the scheduled day I had missed.

He was in fifth grade in March of 2020. I believe fifth grade was to be our final year, as dictated by the Reading Buddy Program.

By then, I had a growing sense I was pulling him from his lunchtime pals.

COVID hit and I haven’t seen him since

But March 2020 is when COVID hit, and I haven’t seen him since.

Steve Pokin after a particularly hard run. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Today, he should be in eighth grade.

But I often think of one of the oddest things that happened during my Reading Buddy years.

One day, I was scheduled to see him, and I did not have to go to work until the afternoon.

So I went running that morning on the Galloway Trail. I had scheduled things pretty tight, leaving me enough time to finish my run, go home to shower and then hustle off to see him before going to the newspaper.

Nothing I could do to prevent hard landing

I felt flat during my run. Part of feeling flat is that I don’t pick up my feet with much alacrity. Instead, they skim barely above the paved surface of the trail.

There was a minor elevation in the pavement, and my toe hit it square and the next thing I knew my fate was sealed. I was on my way to landing hard, and there was nothing I could do to right the ship.

It’s like that sensation when you watch, stupefied, as the water in slow-motion fills the bowl before your toilet overflows.

I had scraped my knee. I believe I ripped a hole in my running tights.

Both hands were scrapped and bloody from breaking my fall. And I had also bloodied my chin, but I couldn’t tell how badly.

No time to shower; straight to school

Steve Pokin, left, started running in high school and rarely fell. (Teammate Cary Adams is on the right.)

I apparently looked bad enough for a bicyclist to stop and ask me if I needed help.

I did not need help, but I had a hard time building to a slow shuffle, so I walked. This put me behind schedule. I had no time to shower or to assess the bodily damage.

I drove straight to the school because I had an appointment with my Reading Buddy.

As always, I went to the main office to check in.

One of the lamest things I’ve ever said

Only this time, the woman at the desk took a long quizzical look and asked: “What happened to you?”

I realized I must look like I had just returned from the front.

“I fell down while running,” I said, realizing that was one of the lamest sentences I had ever uttered.

She told me — she did not ask — to go see the school nurse.

For the first time, I went beyond the desk and down the hallway to the nurse’s office.

The nurse saw me and asked: “What happened to you?”

No, nurse tells me, I’d scare him to death

I thought of lying, but I did not. But this time while speaking, I felt something was off. My words were coming out at what seemed an odd angle, and I was having to think about how to string them together.

My Reading Buddy’s lunchtime had started, and I told the nurse I had to go see him.

She told me no, I’d scare him to death.

It was about this time when a boy, maybe 8 or 9, came in and sat down a couple seats from me.

He looked fine to me.

Again, I’m asked: What happened to you?

He studied me a second and became the third person within minutes to ask: “What happened to you?”

Oh, the yarns I could spin of my heroic exploits as knight errant hoisting the banner of The First Amendment. But did I really want to lie to a little kid?

“I fell down while running,” I told him.

He seemed satisfied with that, and I can only pray that my answer was not the one he was expecting.

The nurse cleaned me up and wiped a surprising amount of blood from my face and neck.

She made me stay for something like 10 minutes and then suggested I call someone to drive me home.

No, I won’t call and ask my wife for ride home

I told her I could drive.

“Really?”

Really, I said. “I drove here, didn’t I?

The truth of the matter was that I could not bear the thought of calling my wife at work for a ride home from the nurse’s office at an elementary school.

I knew what she would ask.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin