I had no intention of telling the story about the glass eater. Organically, that is where my lesson led. I was introducing the idea of Basquiat’s neo-expressionism. About how our life and our stories inspire our art. I was trying to communicate how my feelings about travel have evolved over the years, sharing how the quote from Kerouac’s, On The Road, summarizes my evolution beautifully:
“You boys going to get somewhere or just going”.
Every time I read that book, that line gives me pause.
So as I was sharing with the students about this, my story eventually led me to the glass eater.
When I was younger, I used to travel alone. I loved it. I needed it. I could have gone days without speaking to anyone, but then there would be days when I couldn’t shut up. That’s just how it was for me. In those days I didn’t really plan much when it came to my journey. I would book a return flight somewhere and what ever happened in the middle, that was the filling of the sandwich. I just never knew what sandwich I was about to eat.
It was Pulau Samosir. More commonly referred to as Lake Toba. It’s not on every traveler’s list. In fact, those three weeks I spent there in 2005, I only saw four other foreigners, so I reckon it’s not on many traveler’s lists at all. The description of Lake Toba paints quite the picture. In northern Sumatra, an Island situated in the west of the Indonesian Archipelago, there is a volcano. A dormant volcano that hasn’t erupted in around 100,000 years. In the center of that volcano is South East Asia’s largest and deepest fresh water lake. That’s Lake Toba. And in the center of that massive lake, inside a volcano, in the center of Sumatra is an Island. A tiny Island called Pulau Samosir. For three weeks, I lived on an Island in a volcano. I wasn’t going there to see anything specific or do anything that I had been planning, I was just going. No agenda. Alone.
My first few nights were simple. Very simple. I mainly read and would draw and I would eat my meals at this simple roadside stall every night. I would come close with the owner, Rinto and his wife, Jenny. He would spend his days fishing and most evenings performing in a local Batak Band singing traditional folk anthems for the dozen or so ‘tourists’ on the Island. They had a young daughter, Grace, who took a few days to warm up to the stranger who would come daily to eat her mother’s home cooking. In my time on the Island, I was the only person who ever ate there. At least the only person to ever pay to eat there. But for those three weeks, I dined with that family. They eventually became my family. Comfort.
I would spend my days and evenings exploring. On the days when I felt like talking, I would venture out in hopes of finding curious locals who could handle conversational English, or the rare foreigner with an interesting story to tell. In 2005, if you were a foreigner on Samosir, the chances are you had at least a few stories to share.
One night, I met a Swiss fellow (for the purposes of this story, I’ll now refer to him as Dennis. Dennis most certainly was not his name, but I can’t keep calling him Swiss fellow and I can’t remember what his actual name was). Dennis was in the autumn of his life, retired from a fulfilling career as an architect. Twice divorced. Extremely talkative.
I saddled up next to him and his girlfriend on a stool on the side of the road. We drank luke-warm Bintang and shared stories. Dennis shared, I listened. After a few hours, he asked if I wanted to come back to his guest house. “I have a great room overlooking the lake. The reflection of the stars is breathtaking,” he shared. Because I never, ever had anything else to do, I agreed and we grabbed a few bottles to go and headed to ‘his place’.
Dennis’ companion didn’t speak English. 14 years later, I am sorry to say that I do not remember her name either, so for the purposes of this story, we’ll call her Vanessa. Dennis’ enthusiasm for an English speaker did not sit well with Vanessa. The attention had been shifted, and she was determined to draw the attention back to where it belonged. So as we sat lakeshore, I continued to actively listen, laugh when appropriate and then I noticed at the corner of my eye his companion, wine glass in hand, take a bite out of her wine glass. Not a small bite, but a I-haven’t-had-food-in-three-days-I-am-going-to-annihilate-this-burger sort of bite. Dennis hadn’t noticed and my attention now turned only to Vanessa as she didn’t take her eyes off of Dennis as she just chewed. Purposefully and steadily. Dennis kept talking. Vanessa kept chewing. I had no idea what was going on. She turned to me and opened her mouth. No glass.
Incredulously I asked her, “Did you just take a bite out of that glass?!”
As Dennis turned to her, Vanessa redirected her stare at Dennis and slowly raised the now broken glass to her mouth and took another enormous bite. It was incredible.
“MY DARLING!” Dennis screamed “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU! SPIT THAT OUT”
“THIS IS AMAZING”, I screamed as I watched Vanessa keep Dennis at arms length until her finale, the reveal, that she had chewed the entire bite of glass and swallowed the remains.
She ate all but the stem of the wine glass.
My students were blown away, a little skeptical, and had a ton of question. I answered them all.
I believe that stories are an incredible way to connect with people. As teachers, it is our job to connect. One of many jobs we have. I love stories that are real. That engage. That shock. When we are honest with our students, when we share about us, when we peel back the curtain about who we are and what we are I believe it shows that we care and that the students see that we care. As an art teacher, I try to convince my students that in order to make art well, we must be vulnerable, tell the truth, and be honest with ourselves, without fear. But I feel for students to buy in, I have to make the first move. I want to care for my students. But even more importantly, I want them to know I care. I want them to know who I am and that I want to know who they are and that I care for them deeply. Stories help me do that.