I was in my early 20s when Molly Ringwald brought to life the iconic characters of Samantha Baker and Andie Walsh, two foot soldiers fighting the good fight on the battleground known as high school. I was still young enough to recall the horror of being an awkward, introverted teen who took refuge in role playing (and by that I mean Dungeons and Dragons and drama club—two common habitats of the elusive North American Brown-Crested Nerd).
Even though I kissed my high school years goodbye in the 70s and had by then gained the tiniest nodule of perspective (thank you, college), Samantha and Andie informed my early adulthood. They had the quiet courage to be true to themselves when it would have been so easy to play it safe. They reassured me that it’s okay to feel hurt when you’re overlooked, to want what you want, and to follow your heart in spite of what other people think (I’m looking at you, Duckie).
It’s no surprise that when I heard that Molly Ringwald would be at the Quiet House, my head exploded. Suddenly, I was back in the 80s, a dark time when there were fewer than 50 cable channels and women were encouraged to wear business suits with shoulder pads designed by Walter Payton—which I did. We all did. Don’t judge. As I said—a very dark time.
Seriously, the 80s were hard to navigate, and both Samantha and Andie mirrored the paradox of maintaining your authentic self while desperately wanting to fit in. That decade ushered in many life-expanding options from which to choose (especially for women), but the heady freedom was snarled in the countless, contradictory social norms you were supposed to follow. When Samantha blew out her sixteen candles and Andie looked so pretty in pink, I remember feeling a flicker of hope that I would make it through a crazy time with humor and dignity.
Like Andie and Samantha, I know what it’s like to thrive in ways no one expected for me. I was a painfully shy child who, in junior high, discovered the wonderful release of being on stage and decided to major in theater when I went to college. This was not a popular decision. Believe me, if you want to witness a tidal wave of rolled eyes and exasperated sighs, tell your family you’re going to be a theater major.
I didn’t have the temperament to argue or even defend myself, but I did have the grit to stick with a decision that felt true to me. I graduated with no clear idea of what I’d do with my degree and then somehow stumbled into the one job in the corporate world that directly links to being on stage—classroom training. I was able to enjoy being with people on my own terms. I fell in love with my work, and after 30-ish years, the romance is still going strong.
Now, before things get too syrupy and you start rolling your eyes, Captain Obvious wants to cash a reality check. Being a corporate trainer is not the same as being a highly-paid professional thespian. There are no graciously appointed trailers, no personal assistants, no craft services (although there are usually doughnuts in the break room). But who cares? I’m still dazzled by the pocket-sized miracle of finding a me-shaped niche in the Grand Canyon of the working world. And when I learned that Molly (she and I are secret friends now, in that Molly doesn’t know she’s my friend, but she TOTALLY is) was also an introvert who found a haven in theater, I felt happy and validated. See? You can be an introvert with a BA in theater who makes a decent living. You can grow into the person you know you’re supposed to be.
I wish grown-up me could encourage teenage Samantha and Andie to maintain their quiet resolve, regardless of outside pressures. If they are true to themselves, life may not end up the way they think it will (does it ever?), but it will end up just the way it’s meant to. We’ll never know if Andie, with her love of fashion design, goes on to be the next Coco Chanel. But I’ll bet a dollar she finds a way to use her passion to build an awesome life (with or without dreamy Blane McDonough). Isn’t that what being authentic is all about? You figure out what you’re meant to do; you keep your eyes forward; and you find a way to do it. You don’t have to shout or bang a drum. But you absolutely have to muffle discouraging voices and focus on the wise little person in the back of your mind who knows your purpose.
And wear that pink dress or those white pointy-toed shoes (I’m looking at you again, Duckie.) Because if you’re going to be authentic, you might as well do it in style.
This piece was inspired by Molly Ringwald’s visit to the Quiet House to tape the most recent episode of our podcast Quiet: The Power of Introverts with Susan Cain. Look out tomorrow for the episode’s release and to hear from Molly herself!