Getting rejected by a teen idol crushed my dreams, but not my spirit

Looking for love.
Looking for love.
Image: ABC
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In my life, I’ve taken a lot of shots that have never panned out. I’ve applied to schools I never thought I’d get into, jobs I didn’t think I was actually good enough for, and competitions I would almost certainly lose. I’ve taken plenty of romantic risks, too. So I’ve been rejected—a lot.

But I’ve also had some wins along the way, and I can’t remember the last time I kicked myself for not trying something. The risk-taking is an exhilarating experience. At best, going out on a limb yields unexpected, life-changing results. At worst, it gives me an adrenaline rush and a great story. Perhaps no story sums up this philosophy better than the tale of me and Rider Strong.

When I was but a preteen girl who had yet to have a feminist awakening, I didn’t dream of becoming president or running a company or curing cancer. I just wanted to meet Rider. He played the bad boy on the ABC teen sitcom Boy Meets World, complete with a leather jacket, floppy brown hair in a mushroom cut, and a broken home. He talked back to teachers and had no curfew. I was in love.

I hung his picture in my locker, kissed the television screen whenever he appeared, and led a bunk-wide make out session with his celebrity poster at summer camp. My bedroom became the Rider Strong Hall of Fame, strewn with his headshots and hand-colored signs declaring “Deena + Rider Forever.” When my friends came over, I offered them tours in the dark, using my flashlight as a spotlight.

Of course, I didn’t actually expect to meet the guy. Like a lot of preadolescents, I was using my celebrity crush as a way to find out what it might feel like to be in love without actually making myself vulnerable. I was consumed with the possibility of what if—but bless my middle-school heart, I was unconcerned about the very likely scenario that I’d never get the chance. So I kept trying, sending him letters and postcards regularly, expecting one day he would answer. In the face of his silence, I stayed positive.

And so it seemed like fate when I arrived at Barnard College in New York City at the age of 17 and discovered that Rider was just across the street, a senior at Columbia University. I’d torn down the Hall of Fame years before, but hey—opportunity knocked. I imagined the two of us might bump into each other on campus and fall in love at first sight. From there, most of my fantasies revolved around trivia facts I remembered from old issues of Teen Beat. We’d eat lots of pizza (his favorite food), watch In the Line of Fire (his favorite movie), and decorate my dorm room in purple (his favorite color).

But halfway through my freshman spring semester, we still hadn’t crossed paths—and Rider’s graduation was fast approaching. I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. I tracked down his email in the student directory and wrote him a note explaining that I’d once been his biggest fan, and asking if he’d be up for getting a coffee. I hit send.

At this point, fate finally decided to show up. A few hours later, I was settling into my freshman English seminar, bragging about my bold move, when a friend interjected to tell me that she saw him twice a week like clockwork. He was always entering Hamilton Hall just as she was leaving.

That was all I needed to know. A few days later, I was skipping Spanish class, waiting outside Hamilton to catch a glimpse of Rider. I didn’t have a plan, per se. I just wanted to see him and find out if his hair really flopped so alluringly in real life.

But I didn’t. Maybe this would have been the time to give up, head home, and actually attend Spanish class (albeit late). But that idea didn’t even occur to me. I just assumed I had missed him on his way in, so I waited on the building’s steps for him to come out. My friend Margaret sat with me, both of us giddy with nervous excitement—me hoping to meet the potential love of my life, Margaret delighted to see one of the most ridiculous displays of her college experience.

And then, an hour and twenty minutes later, there he was. He had traded in his leather motorcycle jacket for a wool pea coat, shorn away his mushroom haircut, and grown some scruff, but it was Rider—no doubt about it. My heart jumped into my throat and then stopped. I didn’t know what to do, so I just started following him, with Margaret trailing behind me.

Rider was walking towards Butler Library, and now so was I. When he got to the entrance, he stayed outside on the phone. He may or may not have been aware of me lurking behind him. I was going to talk to him: I knew that now. I also knew I was being creepy and wondered if he was actually talking to anyone on the phone, or just waiting for me to go away.

Still, this was my moment. I’d asked out plenty of guys before, and now I knew: it had all been practice for this one conversation. After what seemed like an eternity, he hung up. My moment had come. I approached.

The whole “casual encounter” scenario was out the window. So I just told him that I’d once been a huge fan. “I know this is a little weird,” I said, “but I was wondering if I could take you for a cup of coffee or something sometime.” (In retrospect, not the sexiest ask-out, but I was trying to dial down the crazy by asking him to meet me a public place.)

“Yeah,” he said, the sunshine glinting off his perfect hazel eyes, “I’m not really comfortable with that.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, panicking slightly now. There had to be more. All those years of obsession couldn’t just end with that. I had to try something else. “Um, well will you at least say hi to me if you see me on campus?”

“Uh … sure,” he said, likely spooked by the fact that I was still there, standing in front of him, asking him to live out my childhood fantasies.

“Um, okay, well, it was really nice meeting you!”

I should have felt defeated. The guy I’d once spent years hoping would become Mr. Deena Shanker had just brushed me off in a matter of minutes. I should have felt as if my heart were a mailbox, and his rejection was the cherry bomb that Shawn Hunter used to blow one up in Season 1, Episode 17.

But the enormity of the rejection had yet to sink in. And much like Shawn’s experience with the cherry bomb, the consequences of my actions wouldn’t become apparent until the end of the episode. My adrenaline had me feeling exhilarated instead, the high of my epic risk-taking carrying me all the way back to my dorm room, where I checked my email. To my continued delight, I found an email from none other than “So I guess I just met you,” Rider had written. “Thanks for the compliments. See you around!”

Reader, I did see him around. But he always avoided my gaze. And he never once said hi.

Rider is married now—and in a few months, I will be too. I still tweet at him sometimes just for fun, and he still ignores me, including when I asked him to comment for this story.

It doesn’t bother me anymore. But despite my initial resilience, I have to admit that my feelings were a little hurt back when I was 17, once I eventually realized that I had reached the ending of a long story—and not the one I’d wanted. Seeing him around on campus afterward—watching the guy I’d once worshiped actively ignore me out of sheer awkwardness—was pretty heartbreaking, every time.

But I didn’t stop asking people out—and I didn’t stop getting rejected. There was the tall and handsome Canadian who told me he wasn’t interested in me like that; the Italian waiter who stood me up not once, not twice, but three times before I finally gave up; and of course, the long-term boyfriends who promised to change in ways that ultimately, they never would, rejecting me in actions if not words. Still, I don’t regret any of them. If I hadn’t finally asked that Canadian why we weren’t making out, I would have kept hanging out with him in the hopes something would come of it. As for that waiter—whatever, everyone should leave their phone number on a receipt for a cute server at some point in their lives. And some of those long-term relationships admittedly lasted past their shelf lives. But I still learned from them, discovering important things about myself as an individual and as a partner.

And through all that risk-taking, I eventually found a relationship so good that I want to stay in it for the rest of my life. More than 20 years after the close of the Rider Strong Hall of Fame, and nearly 15 years after that fateful moment in front of Butler Library, I can say with certainty that Rider and I are not meant to be. Still, I’m glad I took my shot. Most people never get to live out their wildest romantic fantasies—and I didn’t either. But I did get to try.