The Day I Learned to Break the Rules

Rules of a Movie Theater

Ice Cream Woman” by White Panda based on the original “Your Woman” from the album Women in Technology by White Town cross-mixed with “Ice Cream Paint Job” by Dorrough 🎵

My grandmother broke rules a lot.

By the time she died, she got awarded a plaque that said she was a great Medical Doctor in Cleveland, TN.

My grandmother was not a medical doctor.

Betty Jean King Proffitt, MD.

She was married to her husband who was an MD and she ran the entire office.

She had a biochemistry degree and she almost had her MD, but never finished getting her medical degree. They were already living together at that time and decided they would open a practice.

She also taught my grandfather math because he had been in WWII. She was a teacher by the time he got out. Yes, you read that. My grandfather fell in love with his teacher (cringe).

She was supposed to just run the practice…do the books.

Anyway, for 30+ish years they operated their practice, right across from the hospital. She did all the same things he did except actually go in for surgery in the hospital. She’d give shots, take blood, meet with patients. Take X-rays. Diagnose people. Help out with casts. Translate poorly signed prescription pads on behalf of my grandfather. Reported the first ever case of child abuse in Tennessee when a baby came in with cigarette burns into her office. One of the last things she ever said to me was, “Fall in love with someone who wants to work with you.” She didn’t mean work as in “work.” She meant work on life with you. Be a real partner.

It was a small town.

So, by the time she died, the hospital thought – she must have had an MD. How could she have done all the things she did if she did not. Maybe people had just forgotten to add the suffix everywhere.

She was such a good lady. A saint. Who attended church every Sunday.

She would never have helped people if it meant what today could be seen as breaking the law when the law finally caught up to her. It never did because she was born in the 1930s, there were far less rules when she started the practice, it was a small town, and she was never seen as anything but helpful.

I never fully understood that until I was much older. She never called herself a medical doctor.

Yet the hospital awarded her for it.

No one ever corrected that plaque. Betty Jean King Proffitt was one of the best medical doctors in Tennessee who never had a medical degree. We should have put it on her tombstone. And when people ask I definitely always say “Both my grandparents were doctors.” because everyone, and I mean everyone, around them thought they both were. Even me until I was finally told the story.

Molly Sheets, Breaker of Dumb Rules

I’m not sure I would ever be that bold as she was as I’d like to not land in jail. I also have a ton of respect for business integrity and continuity especially where it matters and works.

But I can’t deny that rule breaking was modeled for me by all the women in my family because it was.

Repeatedly. In fact, the women in my family called out dumb rules all the time. And broke them. Vocally. They also broke them quietly because it was often more effective. All the time. I’m sad it took me so long to become that person too because life would have been so much more fun, so much faster if I hadn’t waited so damn long 😎.

More years than I would like to list in this blog ago, one of my first jobs was working in a movie theater in the summer. I got put on cashier and concessions because I smiled a lot. If you want to never see people, some advice, don’t smile, ever. ☹️

My first day on the job my manager, in her suit, and my team lead who was behind the concessions area gave me some light training. I watched a handful of videos about how working in a movie theater will someday make you a movie star because it’s “how you get discovered” and that’s the reason to work in a movie theater. To become an actress (Chef’s kiss). I tried not to laugh out loud out. I got out to sell people popcorn. Where I smiled. A lot. Glad I wasn’t home where it was harder.

The day started pretty normal. People asked for way too much butter. I thought “I’m already giving you enough to kill you” seeing as how I had had grandparents who were definitely not one but two medical doctors.

Not even two hours into my new buttery job, a man came up.

He looked sweaty. Tired.

Like he didn’t belong here.

Like he had been working in the fields for the last six hours.

It’s 99+ degrees Fahrenheit outside.

Behind that man stood one of my years younger friends from my brother’s school. He’s grinning – we hadn’t seen each other in forever. He was so much taller now. He wanted to be in theater. He lived across the street from me. Was willing to be in my adventurous movies[10].


“Hi! I’ll be with you in a second.” My co-workers were busy getting out buckets larger than their heads to rain popcorn into. You could hear the buzzing of the coke machines and the ffsszzz of the carbon dioxide going into cardboard. The clip of the lids. The main movies haven’t started quite yet so people were trickling in. The lobby boomed with trailer audio on repeat from small screens in the corners barely scraping the threshold of distortion. I’d already heard the same ad at least 30 times by then. But I was used to hearing audio on repeat. Just not that poorly.

I look back in front of me. “Sorry, Sir – what would you like?”

I start calmly taking the order of the exhausted man in front of me. It seemed quite hard for him to get it out. My manager kept glancing over at me. But she also glanced back at the front door as more people were coming in. She was managing the room. Figuring out where she needed to be, wondering, can my new hire do her job alone?

She greated those coming through the door. She looked back over her shoulder at least every 30 seconds at me. I was focused straight ahead on my one job and doing it well repeatedly.

Always. Smiling. My co-workers were a bit faster, but that’s okay. They knew what to type into the register.

My customer began to stutter. I couldn’t keep up. At first I thought it was me. Maybe I was too slow to understand his order.

I eyed my manager. I was not smiling. We communicated through what felt like the SOS of eyes.

Things started to feel increasingly not right. My manager positioned her body to me but kept her face at the door. It was like she was about to take off in my direction but not quite sure if we were at that point yet. Like the gun at the starting line had not gone off.

“I’m sorry – can you repeat—?”

My team lead’s face fell. It wasn’t me. I was not too slow.

All our smiles were gone. The floor started to slow. Hands dropped from registers. Sounds became lighter.


My friend looked worried even though he couldn’t see the face of the person in front of him. “Molly?” He saw my reaction and was no longer hearing distinct words from my customer. The language spoken between three feet was incoherent.

“Sir–? Are you oka—?”

My customer slid to the floor.
The people around him tried to catch him.
Some backed up to clear space.
He was passing out.
Not in a binary way, but in a slow and painful, in and out of consciousness, sort of way. If he fell too fast he would have broken something. Laying down felt like relief. The coolness of the floor somewhat woke him up.

I was barely two hours into the job. I had no idea what to do. Shocked.

My friend looked at me “CAN YOU GET HIM SOME WATER?” I turn thinking, Yes! That is a great idea.

My team lead put his hand out at me knowing I’m about to reach for the cups, 50 cents a piece, heavily tracked and counted at the end of the day. Any normal person would do that. But it’s going to mess up the cup count. Or maybe we’ll get sued for providing the water. Maybe it is the wrong move. He yells, “WE CANNOT GIVE HIM WATER!”

Me, angrily: “WHAT?”

He shook his head not wanting to give the explanation live in front of customers.

My manager rushed over while opening her phone in one single motion. The metaphorical racing gun had gone off. Another customer who had just bought water looked at his drink. Looked back up.

Did nothing too.

Unsure if he was allowed to help even though he’s a customer. Suddenly we all lacked brains.

My manager calls the paramedics. They arrive to the scene in less than 10 minutes because we’re in Nashville, and we lucked up that they weren’t that far away.

The paramedics, I’m pretty sure, gave this dude water and slowly rehydrated him. I don’t think he ever ended up needing an IV.

….6 hours later. My team lead said something like, “Wild day.” Everyone was very happy that I let my manager step in.


I got in my car.
Breathed out.
Turned on the music. Not distorted.
And the entire way home thought…

I don’t think I did.

Why would we willingly sell people expensive heart disease while being unable to give customers the liquid of life when having what is heat exhaustion?

“I’m pretty sure. I should…
have given
that guy…

Heat stroke can land a person in a hospital in an IV to save their life and the recommendations are to sponge people with water, not necessarily give it to them to drink as it depends on the current state of the person – they may or may not be able to actually swallow water. But I’d like to highlight in my case “do nothing” was the advice I got and this customer very likely could have drunk water – then later did. We got lucky that our “do nothing” didn’t land with him dead because the paramedics happened to be close enough to come to that conclusion for us.

My younger friend’s face burned into my mind. Others looking up at me from the floor bending down near this guy who had been awake and desperate. He had been sitting up. It felt some of our customers had helped him but we, my team, didn’t and we certainly waited to model it until the experts arrived. We just left it to our manager. The guilt washed over me in my car. I was angry at myself.

I slammed on the gas. Determined to do this $7/hour summer job, but also completely willing to get fired while doing it – never again wanting to settle for less than what makes us human.

That was the day I decided I was going to break dumb rules – I’d rather live with myself having broken the rules and tried than having stood around doing nothing at all while others modeled the same.

Sometimes the rules aren’t there to protect you.
Sometimes they are not even there to protect customers which is a real shame.
Sometimes they are there to protect someone galaxies distant from your problems.
Sometimes they are old and no one came back to question if they are even still relevant.
Sometimes they are there by people who want power and mask it as safety.
Some rules, when used repeatedly over time, cause volumes of cascading problems like technical debt because people are spending too much time in the rules instead of everything else.

Are you giving the people who matter to you water, the thing we need to live when it’s hot outside, or are you standing around wondering if we are allowed to hand it to them to figure out what they need until it’s too late and they really have a heat stroke?

Process is the enemy. Sometimes it’s the rules that are unsafe.

By the way – if you ever DO see a person with a heat stroke or has apparant heat exhaustion, instead of doing nothing until paramedics arrive, Johns Hopkin’s has some great advice on what you can do. Even if you are not sure if they can drink water (it is hard to drink if you are passed out), you can cool the person down by putting water and ice packs on their skin if they are younger, dose them with water from a hose (or a movie theater cup), make sure they are in shade and next to air conditioning – and if they can drink, SIU School of Medicine says to drink water. There is a lot you can do beyond standing where you are to save someone’s life.

Header Image by Felix Mooneeram from Unsplash.

[10] This is the tenth clue to the puzzle.