This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
In sixth grade my class was assigned to play “My Heart Will Go On” as a part of Cherrywood Elementary’s non-denominational holiday spectacular. Our rendition of Celine Dion's famous power ballad would be performed on three-dollar plastic recorders.
To this day, I’ve been trying to figure out the rationale behind assigning the track. What did the Oscar-winning epic have to do with our winter celebration? I mean at best there is a loose connection to the conceptual idea of love. If you really want to stretch it... there might be something vague about death by hypothermia. Maybe it was assigned because Titanic came out around Christmas time? But by most standards “My Heart Will Go On” is not a holiday song. Not even close.
At 11 years old, I was irrationally angry at having to perform Billboard’s Top hit of 1998. Puberty had struck early, which meant most of my time was spent chronically masturbating or experimenting with eyeliner. When I wasn’t doing these things I sought outlets for all the feelings I had, desperate for opportunities to rage against the machine.
Protesting against the recorder assignment was one of these outlets. The refusal to participate was an act of rebellion against arbitrary decisions. It was a chance to stick it to a thoughtless authority. Which meant under no fucking circumstances was I playing “My Heart Will Go On.”
We got our holiday assignment in mid-September, giving the class a little over three months to learn an abridged version of the four-minute track. At our bi-weekly music class, my peers practiced breathing techniques and finger articulation while I silently drew pentagrams on my green Five Star binder. When everyone moved on to actual notes I grew bolder. “It isn’t even a Christmas song!” I’d whisper to my classmates. “Celine Dion has nothing to do with the birth of baby Jesus! ”
Nobody else seemed that bothered by it.
Being ignored by my peers was more or less expected. But I was genuinely surprised to be ignored by my teacher. Didn’t she care that I wasn’t learning? Didn’t she want to know why I refused to participate? Didn’t I matter? In retrospect her indifference made perfect sense. There were twenty-nine other kids to look after and my quiet riot wasn’t disturbing anything. Besides, if there was anyone who was going to get attention for acting out it was probably that kid who kept throwing scissors at the ceiling.
Still, with nobody on my side I soldiered on doing nothing. I honestly believed my passive resistance would make a change. Eventually, the students would recognize my opposition and join in solidarity. Our teacher would see the error of her ways and allow us to choose our own recorder song. Something awesome. Like Smash Mouth. Or Korn. I just needed to stay the course.
Often we commit to things before fully thinking out the ramifications of that commitment. In this instance what I failed to realize is that just because I opted out of the bi-weekly music class, it did not mean I got to opt out of the non‐denominational holiday spectacular. A day before the concert I came to the tragic realization that despite my bravado I’d still have to appear on stage with my classmates. Except they would all know how to play “My Heart Will Go On” and I would have no idea what I was doing.
Nowadays, I’m mostly immune to public embarrassment. I spent my early 20s performing unwatchable experimental theater, using collective creation to make sound poems, and spending hundreds of dollars to learn a movement practice called contact improv. Over the last few years I’ve written dozens of confessional essays for the internet. These things have left me with a thick skin, but at 11, the idea of failing in front of a packed gymnasium still held a lot of weight.
I imagined several different scenarios. I pictured standing on stage while the crowd jeered: BOO! YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO PLAY “MY HEART WILL GO ON.” I pictured people biting sugar cookies into ninja stars and chucking them in my general direction. I imagined Leonardo Dicaprio showing up, silently shaking his head, then disappearing into the cold Atlantic. All of this in tandem was too much for my tiny heart to handle. I quickly abandoned my moral stance on the Titanic theme song and tried to cram eleven weeks worth of music class into a single, self-taught, afternoon.
Mere hours before the performance I was holed up in my bedroom frantically trying to learn the entirety of “My Heart Will Go On” with my three-dollar plastic recorder. Between the loud off key notes I would let out these pathetic, hormone-driven, wails. The result sounded like a dolphin being bludgeoned to death with a puppy’s squeaky toy. After 15 minutes this cacophony attracted the attention of my mom, who came to see what the problem was.
“Graham? You seem really upset,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“NOTHING IS WRONG! GO AWAY!” I replied.
“Graham, obviously something is wrong. Why don’t you tell me what it is. We can work it out like a team!”
“I hate you, mom.”
The conversation went in circular fashion for a long time. Eventually, my mother got me to admit everything. I explained about my act of rebellion. I argued against the nonsensical decision to pick a Celine Dion track for our winter celebration. I told mom about my vision of Dicaprio. By the time I was finished my face was red with shame. I was a snotty, blubbering, mess. Mom took in the scene, paused for a second, then proceeded to blow my mind.
“Graham, it’s an elementary school recital… nobody expected you to be good.” I stared at her face, looking for some sign that she was joking. She was stoic.
“You mean I don’t have to be good?”
“No. These things are always terrible. It didn’t matter how hard you worked. It was going to be bad regardless. So... just get up there and play like you mean it.”
“Are you sure?”
That night I got on stage, dressed in my favorite oversized black hoodie, and played what had to be the loudest rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” ever performed on a three-dollar plastic recorder. I hit all the wrong notes with the confidence of a madman and shook my ass while I was doing it. And you know what? It didn’t matter that I sucked. It didn’t matter that I had no idea what I was doing. At the end everyone clapped as though I was Celine Dion herself. There was a standing ovation for the sixth grade class.
Listening to the applause that night I realized something: If the adults had lied to us about the importance of recorder songs they could be lying to us about literally anything. It was all the affirmation I needed. Authority was not to be trusted, especially around the holidays.