When Otto Warmbier spoke as the 2013 salutatorian at Wyoming (Ohio) High School, he referenced a line from the TV show The Office: “I wish there was a way to know that you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”
Warmbier, 22, died Monday after being returned from North Korea; he had been held prisoner and arrived in the U.S. last week in a coma.
Video of the then-high school student shows a likable young man, ready for a promising future. Wyoming City Schools credited him with “countless contributions” and said his “leadership, actions, and limitless enthusiasm will be felt far into the future.”
Here’s the full speech he delivered at graduation.
When I was told that I’d get the honor of speaking at graduation, my first instinct was to find some keywords, some intellectual college thesaurus words, and build my speech around those. However, my initial attempt at a treatise on the eminent graduation on the current stratum of Wyoming High School seniors came off as a bit dry and pretentious, so I decided it was probably best if I looked for some help. Surely someone in the past however many years has found the right way to say goodbye to 153 seniors in just a few sentences.
A Google search for graduation quotes gave me the words of great speakers like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Winston Churchill, great authors like J.K. Rowling and Ernest Hemingway, and great athletes like Mike Tyson.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite satisfied with what the speakers, writers or even Iron Mike had to say, so I decided to resort to a fool-proof method of research I’m sure all my fellow graduates are familiar with: get frustrated, give up and go watch TV.
That’s when I got lucky: The Office finale was on. I’d seen it twice, but had no objection to watching it a third time. I expected to get a few laughs, relax a bit and come back to writing my speech with a new, more refreshed mindset. I didn’t expect that Andy Bernard, the man named by pop culture magazine Vulture as one of the 10 most annoying characters on television, would say the perfect quote to describe this class, but somehow he beat out Hemingway, King and Tyson.
As all the employees on the show are beginning to go their separate ways and begin new, exciting lives, much as we all are right now, he just described his feelings. He didn’t use any big words or elaborate metaphors, he just spoke: “I wish there was a way to know that you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”
To me, this completely captures the feeling of graduation. This is our season finale. This is the end of one great show, but just the beginning to hundreds of new spin-offs. Today marks the splitting of a group that has exceeded everyone’s expectations, but our plot wasn’t without its low points.
We didn’t win float building, ever, and we may have been the first class, also ever, at Wyoming to not win the All-CHL (Cincinnati Hills League) sports award. In addition to that, we have all lost games, failed tests, ruined friendships, angered neighbors, wasted money and done pretty much everything else that high schoolers do.
But our story line has included something else. Our story line has included something incredible. As a group we’re stronger than anything right now. We’ve made it through the good times and the bad. We’ve celebrated victories together and fought through adversity together. We’ve turned Relay for Life from a fundraiser into a community event that no one would want to miss. We’ve turned the student section at both home and away events from a few cheering fans to a borderline offensive monster.
Looking around we know the names of pretty much everyone sitting up here, that’s the product of going to a small school. We also know much of their deep secrets and failed relationships, that’s the product of living in a small town with a not so small gossip problem. It’s what else we know that makes this class special though. We know where everyone is going next year, we know where everyone has come from. We know how to make each other comfortable, we know each other’s family, we know each other’s friends, we know each other’s siblings, a lot of us even know each other’s grandparents. We know when someone is struggling and we come together as a class to make things better.
As we prepare to leave Wyoming High School it feels like leaving a close friend. In a literal sense, it is. Many of us will move far away and not come back for a long time. But there’s also a different kind of goodbye. A farewell to something larger than just a friend. This is our last day together as Wyoming High School’s class of 2013. Tomorrow morning we will all belong to another class, another job or another city. No matter where we go or what we do though, we will always have this group here. Even when Wyoming’s class of 2013 is a thing of the past, we will have the support of all these people around us. We’ll have the knowledge we gained as a group and we’ll have reruns, the memories we created to be played over and over again.