On December 19th, 1997, twenty years ago, Titanic was released in theaters. At the time, I was a shy and sensitive eight-year-old who loved The Backstreet Boys and aspired to be Harriet the Spy. Little did I know that my world was about to change in major ways.
Though I had zero historical context for Titanic, it was a huge moment in pop culture. Titanic was everywhere — from movie posters and VHS box sets, to a film extra who visited my elementary school class to tell us about all things Titanic. We were obsessed. I went to see the film as soon as it opened with all of my cousins. It was over-the-top and tragic, and it felt like a true love story.
But what really stuck with me was Céline Dion’s ballad, “My Heart Will Go On.” I became obsessed with it. At the time, my biggest crush was Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Simba and I had yet to experience a Jack and Rose-level love.
Still, I felt so connected to the ballad. It was beautiful, overwhelming, sad, and sweet.
One day, in the midst of Titanic hysteria, our school announced that they’d be hosting a talent show. My friend Amanda and I decided that we should probably sign up to sing a cover of Dion’s hit. In the moment, it seemed like the natural thing to do, but looking back, this was completely out of character for me. I didn’t like speaking — let alone singing — in front of large crowds. Though I was a creative kid, I was notorious for being too shy to follow through on many things. A few years earlier, I’d been unable to dance in The Nutcracker because it was too scary; I burst into tears before the show. I also peed my pants at a friend’s surprise birthday party because I was just so excited.
But there was something about “My Heart Will Go On,” about the opportunity to perform it in public, that seemed bigger than my fears.
It had been a rough time. Just a year earlier, my mother had passed away after battling ovarian cancer. It was just me and my dad, and we both had yet to fully deal with her death. To me, singing Dion’s powerful, racing ballad with one of my closest friends was my chance to express myself on my own terms.
In the weeks ahead, Amanda and I did our best to prepare for the talent show. We printed out the song lyrics in our school’s computer lab and listened to the soundtrack nonstop. For a few days leading up to the big show, we practiced in her front yard, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk. We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into, but quickly realized that singing “My Heart Will Go On” was an emotional rollercoaster in itself: the song started off soft and nostalgic, then quickly rushed toward the epic crescendo chorus.
When the day of the talent show finally arrived, though we didn’t have Dion’s stage presence (or her amazing outfits), we would certainly try our best to capture the drama. As we waited for our turn to go onstage, I was slightly nervous, but didn’t feel the need to run away from anything. Unlike in the past, this performance was of my own choosing. And I felt stronger having Amanda next to me. We’d known each other since the first grade, and I trusted her as one of my closest friends. More outgoing than me, she seemed fearless in a way that I wasn’t. I couldn’t let her down; we’d worked too hard on this.
We walked on stage, both clad in black dresses to look somber, a mood that the film very much elicited.
I happened to be wearing the outfit I wore to my mom’s funeral just a year earlier — a boatneck, sleeveless black dress with white stripes at the bottom. I’d picked it out myself.
The haunting flute instrumentals began and our small, eight-year-old voices sang over Céline’s soft vocals.
We started off self aware, reading from the lyrics printout and making little eye contact with our audience of classmates, teachers, and parents. It took some time to get into it, but once we reached the chorus, we were finally in our own element, belting out, “You’re here, there’s nothing I fear!”
The song was about fear, love, and loss all at once. And, in some ways, my experience singing it to a crowd mirrored those emotions.
Oddly enough, those four minutes and 39 seconds taught me about the thrill of taking risks.
I realized that it was okay to not know how everything would turn out in my life. Stability and structure were my jam, but jumping feet first into a new situation was a scary feeling…and I wanted more. I was living differently, in a way where it was alright to make mistakes and not have all the answers.
When we were met with strong applause, I saw the smiling faces of friends and family, and realized that everything was going to be just fine. I was already in uncharted territory as an eight-year-old with a single dad, but I had the best support system I could have asked for. And I knew that, somehow, my mom was right there with me. Anytime I remember singing that song out loud, I still get chills, as cheesy and overplayed as the ballad might seem.
Looking back, I’m so proud of what I did on that stage. Though we never got it together to memorize the lyrics, it was a first for me — one of the earliest risks I ever took. I was no longer shy and timid — I now had power and something to say. And I couldn’t have done it without Jack, Rose, Céline, and a Titanic VHS box set.