Titanic Lessons

In 1997 after seeing the movie Titanic, I wrote an essay.  The Los Angeles Times published it a week later.   Within a few days I received a phone call at the university where I was teaching from an instructor at the Police Academy.  He wanted me to know that he was having all of his students read it. What do you think it is about my essay that the instructor thought would be instructive for student police officers?

A Sinking Feeling in the Bathroom Line

When we set sail on Titanic, we are committing to a three-hour 14-minute movie-going journey. By film’s end, I opted to bolt for the bathroom, ignoring even the credits.

Not alone in my thinking, the line outside the ladies’ room stretched far beyond the door. Inside, 15 more women shifted their weight back and forth. Tension floated in the air. Two women exited the restroom. In the meantime, eight more women had lined up behind me, and I tried to remember how many stalls were in the bathroom so I could compute the estimated wait time. I thought I remembered four stalls; I had at least a five-minute wait.

Suddenly from the back of the line, a woman with child in tow squeezed through pleading, “Please let us through. My daughter is sick.” I stepped aside. As they inched forward, I heard a woman behind me hiss, “We all have to wait.” I turned to this stranger and with a mixture of disbelief and disgust repeated what the woman already knew, “She’s sick!”

Closer to the front of the line, a woman wondered out loud, “Couldn’t she use a sink?” My body tightened. Thankfully, the woman immediately in front of me responded, “She might not be sick like that,” and she made a subtle gesture for throwing up. I liked her immediately.

By then, mother and daughter had reached the front of the line, but not without more obstacles. I heard the mother cry out again, “She’s sick.”

One more woman in the sea of faces around me snickered, “They should have gone to the management. They have facilities for this kind of thing.”

I couldn’t believe the lack of compassion. Had we really just seen the same movie? I mumbled, “And which boat would you have been in?”

I remind my students that we, as filmmakers, have the ability to accomplish so much through our storytelling. We can open closed minds and hearts, while taking our viewers on adventures to faraway peoples, places and times. James Cameron, whose previous films I have admired for their craft, took me on an adventure this time that included my heart. He powerfully dealt with the most tragic aspect of Titanic’s sinking, how so many more might have been saved if more than one lifeboat had turned around.

What I witnessed in the line to the ladies room was terribly disheartening. Do people really believe that they will act decently in the big important moment if they do not act decently in the small seemingly insignificant moments? Don’t they know that the small moments are practice for the big moments?


  • Grandmama

    I was inspired by your essay. It speaks to our humanity and puts it into question. I was moved to apprise myself of how fully I live in the present or not and I like to think of a pivotal world kept in balance with decent actions and the essay gives us all a little window into what an indecent action is and how when we think about it we know better. I hope they reprint your essay in the L.A. Times twelve years after it was first published.

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