The summer before I started high school was a momentous one, though it would be years before I understood that. As any 14-year-old is wont to do, I didn’t realize that a person is shaped by every choice they make, from the people they choose to spend their formative teen years with to the ways they spend their free time.
I was socially awkward in a way that the teenagers of today do not understand. Nowadays the term is thrown around for every person or conversation that feels even slightly unnatural, but trust me, your exchange with your teacher at the grocery store was not awkward like young Ben was.
There was a time when I would watch people out of interest for minutes on end but evade a conversation with them by averting my eyes when they started talking. I thought combovers deserved to come back into style, I had an odd fascination with rap music, and I “rocked” the Justin Bieber swoop cut before Justin Bieber was out of his training diapers.
Come to think of it, not much has changed.
The point is that I did not have many friends to carry from junior high into freshman year, so my summer prior was not riddled with conversations about who I would be and which upperclassmen I would date (don’t worry though—awkward Ben went on to date two of ‘em, ayyyyyye).
Instead, I spent the summer before high school on my couch, watching a new show called The Office.
As a 14-year-old who had only held the job of mowing my lawn until I complained of allergies one too many times for my parents to find it worth it, a show about employees slowly working toward mediocrity in a paper company had no direct relevance to my life.
And yet I felt drawn to the seemingly dull life of these characters by a common and very powerful bond: It looked like we had nowhere to go. Here was a group of people with no aspirations greater than punching the clock and escaping the office before their obnoxious boss, Michael Scott, found a way to terrorize them with terrible jokes and offensive impersonations.
I felt as if the people in this office were living out my anticlimactic life years later. Don’t be sad about that. Truthfully, the show was so funny I wasn’t too worried about an ordinary future like this one.
As the seasons passed, I watched the cubicle-mates grow and laugh and annoy each other and they started to teach me a few things.
I related to Jim, the slightly shy but always mischievous guy who waited years for the girl of his dreams to notice him and give him a chance. I haven’t found my Pam yet, but Jim’s years of patience and seconds of bold courage showed me what to do when I know I’ve found her.
Often, and especially this season, The Office showed us that the happy ending is never really the ending, as Jim screwed up with Pam many times along the way. That reality was part-and-parcel of the show’s charm, that though these characters are living mundane lives they are still experiencing the very real struggles that come with real relationships. “To beginnings and endings,” Will Ferrell’s character Deangelo Vickers once toasted. “And middles—the unsung heroes,” Michael replied.
Michael taught me to care about people so much that you do anything to make them smile and never let the fear of embarrassment stop you from loving with abandon. He got it wrong so many times, and hurt so many feelings with his abrasive sense of humor, but his earnest and sincere passion for the people he worked with acted as a testament of truth in a world where hiding emotions and looking out for yourself reign supreme.
I could talk about these moments for days. To this day, if you spend a few hours with me I am bound to say, “This reminds me of that one Office where…” and proceed to tell you all of the details of Kevin sliding across the warehouse floor on a piece of cardboard or Andy’s “about to freaking lose it” moments.
Now, eight years after it began, The Office is coming to an end. It is the end of an era, and it is honestly an emotional moment for me. I have spent the last few weeks watching the final few episodes through teary eyes, only somewhat ashamed to admit it to you here. When Michael left the office in Season 7, he said, “T-shirt idea: Goodbyes stink.” How true that is.
My literal youth is coming to an end next month, as I will begin my first full-time, adult profession as a teacher. I’m not the 14-year-old boy with no friends and no goals anymore. I don’t spend very much of my time alone these days, and I know at least a little bit about where I’m headed next.
I suppose it’s appropriate and fitting for The Office to end here, as it stuck with me through my youth and now sends me out into that often ordinary but still hopeful world it taught me about.
At the beginning of this season, one of the filmmakers spoke for the first time. Jim asked if they had everything they needed for the documentary, and the cameraman replied, “We just want to make sure everything works out okay for you guys.”
It rang true for fans like me: I wanted to see them accomplish whatever goals and dreams they had set for themselves. After all, it was Michael Scott who once said, “An office is where dreams come true.” But more than that, I wanted to make sure everything would work out okay for me too.
All of these years later, with all of the laughs and memories I hold from this show and from my years as a teenager and college student, I have a pretty good feeling that life works out. I want to thank the employees of a small paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania for seeing me through my youth and sending me off into the real world. I’m not so scared of it because of you.
When I look back a few years later at who I am becoming, I’ll be grateful to have already learned that life was never about the “paper” I sold, but the people I changed and who changed me.
That doesn’t seem like a mundane life at all.
“I think an ordinary paper company like Dunder-Mifflin was a great subject for a documentary. There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kinda the point?” -Pam