LAWRENCE | Looking back is tough. Francis Spraus prefers to look forward.
The 14-year-old Lawrence High School freshman wants to go to college, wants to continue playing basketball. And for a career he said he would like to be a firefighter.
"They save lives and put themselves at risk for others," he said.
Five years ago, firefighters were the ones who pulled him and six friends from the Merrimack River after the thin ice fell out from underneath them.
Four of his friends died that day. Francis and two others survived, including his best friend, Ivan Casado, who ran for help. Ivan’s brother, Christopher, lost hold of Francis and slipped below the surface | the youngest to die.
Francis has worked hard to get past that day. When he graduated from the Gerald A. Guilmette School last year, he wrote an essay, saying he was happy people don't just think of him as one of the kids from the river, that there is more to him that.
His smile fades when he is asked about his friends who died, though. His voice becomes softer and he loses the confidence he has when talking about basketball. His gaze falls.
"I still think about it. I see pictures, they randomly pass in my head," he said. "It’s hard to forget, so I try to ignore it. I can’t really change what happened."
'Every day is a new day'
The river is a few blocks from Francis’ house on School Street, and a short walk from the Boys and Girls Club on Water Street where Francis has been a regular since he was 7 years old.
Basketball is his passion, one he inherited from his older brothers Juan Nunez, 22, and Erasmo Nunez, 21.
Every day, it's school, then basketball practice. In eighth grade, his team through the Boys and Girls Club won the league championship. This year, he is practicing with the high school varsity team.
Francis is a competitive player who hates to lose a game or miss a basket. Even when coaches are yelling at him during practice, he just wants to work harder.
“Then I know the guy cares,” Francis said. “I would rather have him scream than not notice.”
His eighth-grade coach, Steve Kelly, said Francis was someone who never missed a practice, someone the other students loved to play with, because he worked so hard.
Kelly said Francis worked hard at school, too, despite struggling to catch up after falling behind in his fourth-grade year, the year his friends drowned.
Students have to keep their grades up to play for the Boys and Girls Club.
“He was the first one at study hour to get his books out," Kelly said. "Other kids saw him and thought that’s the way it’s done.”
Francis wasn’t always so serious about school.
When he was in fifth grade, he used to ask for a bathroom pass during school, then wander the halls.
Lauren Godbout was teaching and saw him making faces outside her classroom one day.
“It's Francis,” the kids told her. When she opened the door, he froze and ran away.
She had him the next year in her reading class, where he struggled. He was stubborn and emotional. He wasn’t going to do his work if he didn’t want to. She wondered how he would make it through sixth grade.
But then he gained focus.
He voluntarily went to summer school before seventh grade to get his grades up.
"He did a 180 in seventh grade," Godbout said. "He stayed after school every day with me to do his homework because he said he wanted to go to college."
She described him as the type of kid with the determination to do anything once he wants it. He hated mornings so much he would sometimes come to school in his slippers.
But she said he would get out of bed early in the morning sometimes to practice basketball at the school courts.
Francis tried to repeat his eighth-grade year so he could get the grades to go to boarding school, but the Guilmette School discourages repeating a grade for students who have fulfilled the requirements to graduate.
Francis said he wanted to go away for high school, like his brother Erasmo, who attended Brooks School in North Andover. He wanted a chance to be on his own.
Erasmo said schools should have been more understanding when Francis was applying. He doesn't want his brother to use the drownings as an excuse, but he said people seem to have lost the compassion they had five years ago. He wondered if people have forgotten what it must have been like for Francis.
"They don't know what he went through," said Erasmo. "I'm his brother and I don't even know what he went through. I don't know what it is like to lose a friend, to have his hand slip out of your hand. But that's what happened to him."
Francis said he likes Lawrence High School now. He has adjusted and things are going well.
"I like waking up early in the morning. Every day is a new day," he said.
He added quickly, "Not that I’m a morning person."
No looking back
Francis lives alone with his mom, Alicia Soto, who works at the New Balance shoe factory in Andover. She leaves early in the morning and gets home at 4 p.m., around the time Francis gets home from school if he doesn’t have basketball.
His father is in the Dominican Republic, a place Francis visits every other summer.
“It was tough,”Soto said about raising three boys alone. Her son Juan Nunez translated for her.
When asked if she thinks about what happened at the river, she nodded.
“Every morning I give Francis a hug and kiss, thankful he is here,” she said.
She smiled at him.
“He’s a good kid,” she said.
Soto said her dream for him is to work hard and go to college, like Erasmo, who is at Emmanuel College in Boston.
Francis and his mom like to tease each other, and joke around.
Erasmo said Francis has charm that makes him well-liked among his friends and family. Others describe his smile as "infectious" and "unavoidable."
“He likes to make people laugh by goofing off,” said Erasmo. “He’ll try to make you feel comfortable.”
Erasmo said in the past couple of years, Francis has become more extroverted, like the boy he used to be.
In the time after his friends died, Francis was quieter, more reserved.
Erasmo remembered taking Francis to get a haircut a few months after the drownings. When they sat down, someone said to him, “You look familiar. Aren’t you that kid who drowned?”
Francis didn’t say anything, but Erasmo saw his eyes begin to water. They left without haircuts.
“Obviously, it touched a feeling in him,” Erasmo said.
Even today, people still recognize Francis from the newspaper articles and television interviews after the drownings. They tell him he looks exactly the same.
On the second day of school this year, someone in one of his classes was talking about the four boys who drowned in the Merrimack River, not realizing Francis had been there.
Francis asked him to stop, but the boy didn't.
Francis asked him again, and stood up, but his teacher stopped him.
“He hates when people talk about his friends,” his mom said.
Francis remembers his friends in his own way. He plants flowers at the peace garden created in their memory at the Guilmette School. He still hangs out with his best friend, Ivan, on the weekends when they don't have basketball. On the anniversary of the drownings, he takes a card to his teacher Godbout, because it is also her birthday.
When he talks about the river, he is a teenager looking back on a terrible day from his childhood. In the rest of his life, he looks ahead.
“I can’t change the past,” he said.
LAWRENCE | Looking back is tough. Francis Spraus prefers to look forward.
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