BROOKSVILLE — The menu at the Eastside Elementary School cafeteria on April 16 offered spicy chicken sandwiches, and Roderick Reynolds was digging into his with gusto.
Across the table, his buddy, Lonnie Knight, looked up and saw Roderick's face turn a frightening shade of purple. The fourth-grader's eyes began tearing up and turning red as a hunk of chicken lodged firmly in his throat.
Lonnie sprang around the table and wrapped his arms around Roderick from behind, clenching his fists at his pal's abdomen. Five or six upward thrusts later, the chunk of chicken thunked onto the tray.
Roderick was alive, and Lonnie was an instant hero.
On Tuesday, classmates, teachers and family members all gathered at the school to salute the quick-thinking 11-year-old. Frank DeFrancesco, assistant chief of Hernando County Fire Rescue, gave him a handshake, a plaque and an offer of a full-time job.
The road to Lonnie's heroics actually began one day in October when Jennifer Sisco, his teacher, was in the cafeteria. A student began to choke on a peanut butter sandwich and Sisco, 28, dashed to the student and performed the Heimlich maneuver.
Her students were astonished.
"The children had so many questions," Sisco said, so she took them back to the classroom and turned the scary event into a teachable moment.
She explained the basics of pushing up on the rib cage to dislodge an item from the victim's esophagus. "I remember Lonnie sitting there and taking it all in. They all were."
"Our teacher, Mrs. Sisco, showed us how to do it," Lonnie recalled. "You position yourself behind the student that's choking and you lift up, up until it comes out."
Sisco wasn't in the cafeteria to see Lonnie put her lesson into practice, but she hurried to the school's clinic when she heard about the rescue. She found both boys shaken but okay.
"I was choking and I thought I was going to die," said 10-year-old Roderick.
Assessment teacher Lydia Varela was in the cafeteria on April 16 watching over the children. "I looked up and Lonnie had gone around the table and grabbed him," she recalled. She looked at Roderick's face and began yelling "choking."
"I ran around the table, but, by the time I got there, the piece had come out," she said.
Lonnie's mother, Lashaunder Golden, 32, was at work when she got a call from the school telling her of her son's heroics. "I was very surprised," she said at the presentation Tuesday. "I didn't even know he knew how to do it. I'm glad he saved someone's life."
Not just anyone. The boys have been fast friends since they met at Head Start as pre-kindergarten students.
They separated at the start of elementary school when Lonnie went to Eastside and Roderick went to Brooksville Elementary. Last year, Roderick's family moved and he and Lonnie were reunited. Now, Roderick said, they are "closer than ever."
Lonnie said it scares him to think about what would have happened if he hadn't been taught the Heimlich maneuver. "I would have been seeing him get rushed to the ambulance," he said.
Roderick thinks about it, too.
"For me, when I walk through the (cafeteria) doors and go sit down, I keep on seeing him,'' he said. "Me, choking on my food, and him doing the Heimlich and saving me."