Peter Winkler and the 53 Ums


The crowd of juniors and seniors clapped half-heartedly, shifting in their folding chairs. I wiped my clammy palms on my jeans, following the others in my group back to our seats.

It was Entrepreneurial Week at Gilbert High School. Regular classes were canceled, and groups were assembled to build a fake business. I don’t recall the specifics of our business plan, but the whole week had classic Group Project vibes. Opinionated honor roll kids debated their ideas while the cool kids gossiped in the corner, not wanting to take on anything resembling responsibility. As a shy band nerd, I was somewhat in the middle. I had ideas but didn’t crave the spotlight. Being confidently myself in front of others was a skill set I was just starting to hone.

On Friday, we all had to present our business plans to the whole group. When no one else stepped up, I agreed to be one of the three people who would lead our presentation. I was nervous to speak in front of 200 of my peers, but a few minutes in, I remember hitting my stride. Intimidation fell away, and I didn’t need to rely so much on my index cards of talking points.

After we sat down, I watched the remaining presentations with quiet triumph, celebrating my moment of breaking through my shy-girl barrier. As everyone shuffled out of the auditorium for lunch, our group gathered in the back of the room.

That’s when Peter Winkler* showed up.

*His name wasn’t actually Peter Winkler. Even though what he’s about to say in this story is the height of assholery, I think he actually turned out to be a nice guy. Married with a kid, and still involved in Boy Scouts, or something like that. So, I’ll protect his true identity, and give him the benefit of the doubt… But, for the sake of this story, feel free to read his name with a scoff of mild disdain. Peter (eye roll) Winkler.

Peter walked up with the determined air of someone who is about to give unsolicited advice. “So during your guys’ presentation, I noticed that Blake said ‘um’ 13 times.” Blake squinted at him, as he continued, “Amy, you only said ‘um’ six times… And Allie—you said ‘um’ 53 times.”

He delivered my um-count like a punch line, glancing around the semicircle of our group to gauge the reaction. All eyes darted to me. Tunnel vision clamped down while pins and needles of mortification radiated out to my extremities.

I pictured Peter sitting in the middle of the crowd, smugly adding column after column of tally marks in the margins of his spiral notebook while I was talking. That’s when the wave of humiliation gave way to a flood of rage.

Three seconds later, or maybe it was thirty—I said the only words I could think of to wipe that smirk off his face.

With absolutely zero vocalized pauses, I looked Peter in the face and said, “Fuck you**.”

**Ok, I need to pause again here and explain the gravity of me saying these words. Up to this point in my life, and in almost every sense of the word, I was a Good Girl. I was a people-pleasing, straight-A making, church nursery volunteering, youth group attending, rule-following, R-movie avoiding nice girl. I did not swear—not even in my diary. I had rarely even thought the “F-word,” let alone said it to someone else. Saying “fuck” was a Big Deal. To me and to everyone who heard me.

Stunned silence followed as my curse echoed through the air. I barely heard the shocked laugh as I mustered what dignity I still had and walked away.

This fateful day was in 2005, so literally half of my lifetime ago. I don’t think of it that often anymore, but I’ll still bring this story out occasionally telling it with a chuckle at dinner parties. As I was writing this, however, I realized something. Maybe you caught it too—apparently, I’m still not over this. Seething anger towards Peter effing Winkler and righteous indignation still bubbles up when I replay this memory.

Which isn’t totally fair to Peter Winkler. I mean, if he was keeping tally of my vocalized pauses for fun, what was his own inner critic like? Most adolescent guys, at least in the Midwest, are taught to act with over-confidence but given very little access to tools of self-awareness. That combination usually doesn’t serve them well. His comment that day says far more about his own insecurities, even though he was spotlighting mine.

But that moment quite literally confirmed 17-year-old Allie’s worst suspicions—that people don’t think I’m good enough. That at any moment of “putting myself out there”, I can bet that someone is in the crowd keeping tally of my failures. And that others will soon be laughing at my expense.

Long before the incident with Peter Winkler and the 53 ums, I thought the control panel for my self-worth lived in the space between me and whomever I was interacting with. It seemed the only way to raise or maintain my self-esteem was to impress, prove, or please the other person so that they might turn the dials up on my enough-ness, my lovability, my right to belong.

A lot of the time, I was able to make this faulty system work. I got really good at reading others’ moods and matching what I perceived they needed. And I received praise for being sweet, a thoughtful helper, a smart, well-behaved young woman. I inherited a lot of privilege—the circumstances of my life enabled me to fit in and be acceptable in my small midwestern world.

I just also lived with a hum of chronic anxiety. I learned to move through that world managing the tightness in my chest and hypervigilance towards anyone who might be any version of not impressed with me.

But then, inevitably, the system would crash. Someone would be in a bad mood, I’d mess up, or I’d cross paths with the Peter Winkler’s of the world, and the Shame and Discomfort-in-my-Own-Skin meters would reach dangerously high levels.

Most of the time, when situations like that came up, I’d hide. Whether that was in a bathroom stall to cry in, or just putting on the Everything’s Fine mask, processing my hurt was a solitary thing. Speaking out my hurt, my disagreements, and any uncomfortable emotion felt nearly impossible.

Which is why I’m so proud of 17-year-old Allie. Rather than pretending to laugh with everyone else or running away to cry in the bathroom, I love that she pulled out the never-before-used tool of her shiny swear word and clearly communicated to everyone listening that what Peter said wasn’t ok with her. At that moment, she let everyone know—including herself—that her anger mattered.

These days, I’m not nearly as shy, and most of the good-girl inhibitions are gone. I’ve come a long way—and yet. I can see evidence of my fear when it comes to the possible critics lurking behind any new venture or on the other side of a computer screen. I filter how I show up based on the potential for rejection.

As I look back on this memory with curiosity, I can see my indignation starting to shift. I’m less and less interested in what Peter Winkler said that day. What makes me more sad are the million subtle and seismic ways I have chosen to stay hidden or played it safe to avoid the risk of ridicule. While that self-protection felt necessary to stay safe in the first third of my life, I am indignant at the thought of continuing to stay small as I move forward.

The possibility of failure or rejection is a “when, not if” scenario, especially when I step outside of my comfort zone. But I don’t want to live the rest of my life avoiding the Peter Winklers of the world. What makes more sense is to reorient that self-worth control panel to face me, rather than my critics.

This isn’t a one-time remodel situation. It’s a thousand small moments of bravery. A reframing of my moments of messiness, imperfection, embarrassment, stumblings, and even my “ums”.


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