Where was my Winnie Cooper?

By Mike Koenig

I must have been in first grade when The Wonder Years first aired.  Six years younger than the main character Kevin Arnold, the perfect age difference to really fall in love with the show.  If I was a little older, I would have been turned off by its family friendliness; and if I was a little younger I might not have cared for its plotlines involving teenage love.  As it was I was exactly the right age to really love the show, to really love its female lead, Winnie Cooper.

Yes, Winnie Cooper, the brown-eyed, dark-haired girl who lived across the street from Kevin Arnold.  There was something magical about her.  She was beautiful, without being sexy; sweet without being dull; and desirable without being provocative. To my eyes she was as perfect as girls came: attractive, caring, and available.  She was as shy as the boys who liked her, but also carried a certain intangible charm.  She was simultaneously the girl everyone would want to date and the girl anyone could date.  Perhaps that is what made Winnie special.  She was both alluring and obtainable.  But what I remember most was her voice.  It was always soft, barely louder than a whisper and had a delicate delivery as if each syllable was being carefully considered.  Her only goal in life was to remove pain and her voice, that wonderful understated gentle voice, eased the tension of not quite understanding the opposite sex.

There were other shows with teenagers and they had desirable girls in one sense or another.  But only Winnie had the voice.  Only Winnie was the right mix of alluring and obtainable.  Saved by the Bell’s Kelly Kapowski was sweet but ultimately ran with the cool kids.  Blossom’s Blossom was a nice girl but not quite pretty enough to be pined. And Kelly Bundy of Married with Children was a sex kitten with no emotional depth. They were great girls but only Winnie was approachable. She was what every boy should want and what I specifically did want.  More than a girlfriend I wanted to have that constant sense of this is what you should want from life.  And for me the Wonder Years was about Kevin Arnold learning that happiness was always right in front of him.

The show took place in the late 60s and early 70s.  It took place exactly twenty years before the show aired on television.  This means that as I approach the twentieth anniversary of starting the seventh grade (both Kevin and Winnie’s age during the first season) I am exactly as old as the narrator of the show.  And while it’s impossible or at least improbable for a real person to look back on his own life with as much nuanced reflection as the narrator of the Wonder Years looked back on his life, I do find myself wondering at the age of thirty-two: Where was my Winnie Cooper?

I had crushes in middle school.  There was always a girl I liked and like most boys it changed a few times each year. I have stories about being a pre-teen and wanting to date and not knowing how.  For most of eighth grade I really liked this blonde-haired girl whose lavish breasts I mistook for a great personality.  Strange how my eighth-grade mind found the girl with the biggest boobs to be both really smart and terrifically funny, even though my primary interactions with her were nonchalant glances down her shirt and strict denials, if asked by anyone, that I liked her at all.  So I do have memories of dating or rather of not dating, and a general understanding of what it’s like to not know how to act around the opposite sex.  What I don’t have, what I wish I did have, is an innocent love interest that I can look back on with true fondness.

My middle school life was devoid of true romantic intentions.  The closest thing I had was that big-boobed girl. I liked her for the wrong reasons, and to some extent I think I knew it even then.  At the very least I knew she didn’t like me at all.  So whatever feelings I had were too one-sided to be called teenage love.  They weren’t really feelings at all but rather infatuations that were too weak for me to actually act on in any serious way.  The closest I came to making an effort towards love or a relationship was in sixth grade when one of my friends called the girl I “liked” and asked her what she would say if I asked her out (in middle school it was always a question of if). Unknown to the girl I was listening to the phone call, hoping for some positive response, but not knowing what I’d actually do if I were to get one.

“Hi Tracy,” Matt had said with more confidence than I would have been able to muster when talking to a girl.

“Hi,” she said.

“Listen,” Matt continued, his voice as smooth as any voice I had ever heard, “What do you think of Mike Koenig.”

Tracy paused.  She was really considering the question, deciding on just the right adjective to describe me.  “He’s okay, I guess.”

At that moment I looked at Matt, we were both sitting on the floor in his room, him on one portable phone, me on a second which was muted so even my breathing wouldn’t be heard.  I was silently begging him to stop there.  There was no reason to go any further, but Matt continued, “What would you say,” Matt paused for dramatic effect, as if he were introducing Tracy’s eventual husband, “if Mike asked you out?”

Tracy’s answer was a simple, “no.”  And though Matt waited for her to give a reason, she offered no explanation.  So there was about thirty seconds of waiting.  Tracy probably thinking, anything else? And Matt thinking, why not? But neither would actually bring those thoughts to words so there was just this brutal silence.  And in that pause all I could think was it was really easy for Tracy to say no.  She didn’t hesitate, not even for a second.  She didn’t even make her voice soft or sweet to cushion the blow.  She just said, “no.” And then Matt asked her some nonsense questions about school and then they hung up.  And it was just me and Matt alone in his room, neither of us feeling good about the phone call.  But at least the question had been merely hypothetical.  Thank God, I thought, thank God I didn’t really ask her out.

That was the only time in my life I had a friend call a girl on my behalf.  That first no was too direct, too painful.  Not that I was in love, even at the time I didn’t think my feelings were that strong, but her “no” did hurt.  It was mean-spirited and I didn’t want to hear it again, even over the phone.

So I didn’t date in middle school.  I thought you should wait for the girl that wouldn’t say no so quickly.  You should wait for the girl that was so right for you that you would have to ask her out yourself; a girl so perfect that you’d be unable to not ask her out.  You should wait for Winnie Cooper, the alluring girl who was also obtainable.

But Winnie Cooper didn’t go to my school.  She didn’t live across the street and I never saw her at the movie theatre or a party or a school dance.  She only existed in the reruns of The Wonder Years that now aired after school. I’d watch those reruns and wish real life was that easy.  I wished I could meet a girl that made dating easy because she was so obviously “the one.”  But I didn’t. The perfect girl, the Winnie Cooper girl, didn’t exist.  So while I always had a girl I “liked” there was always a feeling that something was missing, that I should expect more. That dating shouldn’t have doubts.

Looking back it was a pretty silly expectation.  Maybe I believed it just so I wouldn’t have to try.  So I wouldn’t have to fail.  But I still wish there was one girl who stood out, more than breasts or looks.  I wish there was a girl, just one girl, I actually felt connected to that would make me feel special just by saying hi in a soft voice.  I wish some girl had encouraged me to make a clumsy, stupid thirteen-year-old dating move. The way Winnie had always encouraged Kevin.  Twenty years later, I really wish I had a failed middle school love.

I re-watched the Wonder Years on Netflix recently.  It probably inspired this essay and definitely got me thinking about my own wonder years.  The show holds up pretty well and I still like Kevin and Winnie’s relationship.  Her voice still kills me with its slow, soft delivery.  But as I re-watched the show I realized Winnie Cooper wasn’t that great a girl.  She rejected Kevin’s earliest advances and denied her feelings about him.  She didn’t always know what she wanted and sometimes took that out on him.  She was a confused teenager, no better or worse than the ones I went to school with. Overall she’s still a nice girl, a catch even, but she’s hardly the perfect girl I remembered. And the relationship between her and Kevin was fairly bumpy.  So as a man now as old as the narrator of that show, who thinks about his youth, with only slightly less nuanced detail, I find myself still wondering where was the Winnie Cooper of my life?  Did I really not have one?  Or was I just not enough of a Kevin Arnold to realize it when I met her?



Mike Koenig received his MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He currently lives in Columbia, Maryland and works for Discovery Communications. His writing can be seen in numerous publications including Phoebe, Quiddity, Clover, and The Tulane Review.

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