The gangly 16-year-old redhead staggered down the driveway, his shoulders bowed under the weight of a heaping pile of clothes.
He clambered onto the bus, the week’s laundry in tow—there was no running water at home, so the laundromat it was.
After loading a week’s worth of dirty T-shirts and jeans into the row of washers and waiting for the suds to scrub them clean, he tossed the sopping clothes back into the sack.
And from there, it was back on the bus.
They couldn’t spare the change to use the dryer.
A 4.3 GPA while taking several AP classes is impressive enough. But coming from this kid, in these circumstances?
Frankly, it’s kind of mind-blowing.
The teen who often spent his nights shivering and exhausted nevertheless managed to excel academically, earning spots in Herron High School’s Achaean 80 group, an organization of students chosen to serve as the voice of Herron’s student body, and the National Honor Society.
“I worked my butt off in high school,” David said. “I remember only getting four or five hours of sleep a night, but by the end of my high school career I had like a 4.3 GPA.”
He was the kind of student teachers apologized for having to discipline.
“When I was in my first year of high school, I had a professor who—holy cow, he was hard. He didn’t take slack from anyone,” David said. “So one day I forgot my ID, and he wrote me a detention.”
“But the day before my detention, he emailed my mom and basically apologized for having to discipline me. He was like ‘David is a great student, and I’m sorry that he has to serve this detention.’ ”
Not only did he excel academically, but David also captained Herron’s cross country team his senior year, and was part of the first cohort of Herron students to create large-scale “icon paintings” of famous historical figures.
“One year, I painted Octavius Caesar for 50 hours over three weeks,” he said. “And then the next year I decided to try and up the ante, and I spent 80 hours over three weeks doing Edwin Hubble, who invented the Hubble telescope.”
And this is while you were doing the whole…?
“Poverty thing, yeah.”
“What can I do for you, m’dear?” the grinning tutor with the flaming red hair asks as he brews a pot of tea to share with the girl he’s working with in the Writing Center.
Relentlessly happy and upbeat, 23-year-old David Gurecki loves deep conversations, swing dancing, and painting.
But the quickest way to his heart?
Homemade corned beef.
“He’s very outgoing, friendly, fun-loving…” said Sarah Grace Fraser, a friend and fellow Writing Center tutor.
Another friend, Emily Jordan, told me he’s “goofy and playful, but also very reflective and introspective.”
“He has seemingly endless energy,” she said.
This ball of energy is the last person on Earth you’d think would ever have lived through the ravages of poverty.
If he hadn’t told me so himself, I’d never have believed it.
For two years, during David’s sophomore and junior years of high school, the cramped inner city house was home to five dogs, six cats, one woman, one boy, no heat, and, for nine months, no running water.
“Times were very desperate, and [my mom and I] often had to go to food pantries to make sure we had enough to eat,” David said.
“I was deeply impoverished.”
He was also alone.
“My mom tried her best, but she was very caught up in her dreams of trying to hit it big. My dad was not a good man, and he was out of my life from an early age.”
David didn’t have a job in high school.
But boy, did he work.
“There was so much to do around the home,” he said. “I mean, you put in the time to travel the bus, to let the dogs out, to help tidy the house, to do groceries, to try to help do laundry…”
“I had 11 animals to take care of,” he said. “We also didn’t have a car, which meant I rode the bus every single day through my sophomore year of high school.”
David not only cared for six dogs and five cats; for nine months, he did so without the aid of running water.
“We had to try to find all the dogs water,” he said. “And then we had to try to get a gallon of water for ourselves, for basic needs such as taking a bath or having water to drink.”
“So, when you put all that together, plus having a social life? I mean, that’s crazy.”
David’s sophomore and junior years weren’t an aberration, but part of a larger pattern of privation.
“I went to middle school and elementary school in a neighborhood about 20 minutes south of Indy, near Rockville Road,” he said. “Then we moved to a decent place, although it was still rough—my mom wouldn’t let me out of the yard.”
“I found out a couple of weeks after we moved out of there, in 9th or 10th grade, that we were three blocks away from a meth lab that exploded.”
“So it was a very redneck sort of place—I mean, it was rough.”
But his troubles weren’t over yet.
“From there I moved to Keystone, which is really rough,” he said. “I remember there was an AK-47 shooting at the gas station at the end of my block; there was a guy running down the street shooting off a gun.”
But his greatest test was still to come.
In March 2010, in the spring of his junior year, his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Under the hot stage lights, he gazes deep into the eyes of his partner.
As the packed auditorium watches, he spins her in a circle, pulls her back, rests his hands on her shoulders, swirls around her; all the while swaying his own shoulders in time to the music. He leans down; dips her, cradles her; lifts both of their bodies back up.
When the final note sounds, both freeze, immobile, the picture of grace.
Then the lights come back on, and the redhead and his partner take a bow as they soak in the applause.
One wouldn't expect a psychology major to also be a swing virtuoso.
With a backpack full of books with titles like “Personality Theories” and his jeans-and-Converse uniform, the tutor with flaming red hair (“Have you seen it?” his friend Allison Schwein asks me, “It’s so orange!”) doesn’t look like your typical swinger.
But two nights a week, during Swing Cats meetings in the Campus Center, he's spirited away to the world of West Coast Swing.
Despite having no professional experience before college, David had always had a passion for dance.
“I remember one time I went down to Florida with my friend Aiden, and we went to place called the House of Blues,” David said. “And there was a guy just ripping on his guitar, doing amazing stuff. And there was no one on the dance floor.”
“And Aiden and I, we just looked at each other, and we’re like ‘We’re going to dance.’ ”
Despite his lifelong passion for dance, his desire to take up swing dance specifically was sparked by a similarly unscripted moment.
“I actually learned how to dance about two years ago,” he said. “I saw a movie, and there were these East Coast swing people dancing, and I was like ‘Oh, I wish I could do that.’ ”
“But I couldn’t find any swing dancing here until I just stumbled upon the Swing Cats, and I was like, ‘Hey, can I try this out?’ ”
“I tried it out, and I was addicted.”
“I just kept doing it.”
Now in his sophomore year as a swing dancer, David’s skills are a far cry from where they were only two years before. Earlier this year, he even earned a fourth place finish in the Chicago Classic Swing Dance Championships, allowing him to move up in the ranks from Newcomer to Novice.
David was 18 when he got the news of his mom’s cancer diagnosis.
He’d only been a legal adult for a few days, but already his responsibilities had grown tenfold.
“Because of his mom’s health, David had to grow up a lot faster than any adolescent should,” said Ayden Jent, a high school friend.
“I think his mother's illness caused him to be a very mature person ahead of his time out of necessity,” Emily said.
David had to grow up, and grow up fast.
“Being there for my mom—taking her to the hospital, going with her on those trips—it wasn’t easy,” David said.
“I remember one night my mom had a seizure, and it was in the middle of the night at like one in the morning. We had to ride an ambulance to the hospital, and she didn’t get out until three in the morning.”
He still went to school the next day.
In August 2010, five months after her official diagnosis, David’s mother passed away after a year-and-a-half-long battle with cancer.
“You know, I’d had animals die before, but that’s different from when a person dies,” David said.
“I swear I lost everything.”
David’s grief quickly spiraled into something more serious: depression.
“I really didn’t want to be here anymore,” he said. “I didn’t want to get out of bed.”
“I was on such shaky ground.”
“Even during college, I was having such a hard time just getting through day to day. Anyone that’s had depression knows that it’s not something that just goes away; it’s not something you turn on and off.”
“It’s an illness.”
David may have lost one home, but he soon found another.
“Luckily, my friend Allison from high school decided to let me stay with her family,” he said. “Her parents became mine, and they really helped nurture that part of me that wanted to express love.”
“Because, you know, I’d always been a kind person, but I was under so much stress when I was living in poverty.”
“You just get so scared; you get so closed in—”
As he was able to feel more secure, David had to begin working through the pain.
“My adopted mom had quite a big influence on me,” David said. “She and my adopted father helped me explore the tragedy I’ve had to deal with in my life; how I can express that anger, express that sadness, and…just how to feel joy again.”
Although they didn’t formally adopt him, David and his new family are as close as blood relations.
“Since we’re practically siblings, we like to combine our last names [Schwein and Gurecki] and pronounce it ‘Shrecki,’ ” his high school friend, and now adopted sister, Allison said.
David earned several scholarships his senior year, awards which punched his ticket to attend IUPUI in the fall.
In spite of his depression, he’d somehow managed to muddle through.
Depression never goes away, but David eventually learned to manage its lows more effectively.
“Sophomore to junior year of college, I would say, was when it became less,” he said.
“You know, there’s still pain that’s involved, but you get less affected by it; there’s less fear.”
“It’s ‘Oh, you had a bad few minutes; you can recover,’ or ‘You just had a bad day,’ and you’re able to get through the whole day.”
Despite the hard times that initially induced him to come to IUPUI (“I was accepted into several colleges, but I was still pretty poor, right? Scholarships.”), he said he has no regrets.
“My first kiss ever was during college,” he said. “I’ve been on Conan O’Brien while I was in college. I did my first-ever protest. I worked for NUVO. I’ve gone to Florida; I’ve gone up to Chicago.”
“I wouldn’t have experienced all this culture, or swing dancing, if I’d gone anywhere else.”
Depression had overwhelmed him, but he hadn’t allowed it to claim him.
After the sixth time in only two minutes, I stop counting how often David’s friends used the adjectives ‘kind’ or ‘caring’ to describe him.
“What stands out most to me about David is his care for others,” Emily said.
“We were just hanging around downtown the other night, and this lady came by who was deaf, and she asked for change for a bus ride back home,” Nigelle Ferrer, a friend from Swing Cats, said. “All of us checked, and none of us had change, and then David’s like ‘I might have some,’ and then he reached into his pocket and he got change out, and he gave it to the lady.”
Another Swing Cats friend, Tania Gurdasani, took me aside at a Swing Cats practice to make sure I knew about another story.
“When we started Swing Cats, Emily, the girl sitting over there; she was really shy because she’s bigger than some other girls, and her dancing isn’t as fluid.”
“But David, instead of picking to dance with every other girl, he immediately went over to her and was like ‘Do you wanna dance?’”
“And that just lightened up her mood; it just made her feel so much better because someone wanted to dance with her. You know, she was feeling like ‘Because of how I am, how I look, no one wants to dance with me,’ but David changed that.”
Allison’s known David for eight years, Emily for one and a half years; Nigelle and Tania for only five months.
Nevertheless, one thing is equally clear to all of them.
“None of these things were done…it’s not romantic; it’s not like in any way that he’s…it’s just him,” Tania said.
“It’s part of who he is, and he acts that way toward everybody who’s his friend.”
“It’s great to be a friend of David’s.”
According to Tania, David is the volunteer heart of Swing Cats.
“He’s always like ‘Who’s down for MLK Day of Service?’ or ‘Who’s down for helping out at Riley?’” she said.
As the Swing Cats events coordinator, David keeps the swingers out and about in the community, dancing with everyone from patients at Riley Children’s Hospital to senior citizens in retirement homes.
“You know, they’re feisty ladies!” David said. “I remember there was one senior who asked me, ‘Why are you dancing with me? You should be dancing with cute girls your own age.’”
“I liked her—she had sass; it was great.”
After he graduates this May, David hopes to work for an Indy nonprofit.
“I think that’s what I want to do in life; I want to help people love themselves,” David said.
“I tell you what, my biological mom, she had her problems, but even though there was so much turmoil happening in our lives, she was able to show me how love was supposed to be.”
The late-night hospital visits, his mom’s battle with cancer, the AK-47 shooting just down the street—
His Swing Cats friends, they don’t know about any of this.
They know only that he coordinates their carpools; spearheads their volunteer efforts; gives change to a deaf woman on a downtown Indy street.
For David’s friends, his kindness needs no explanation.