‘Just be cool,’ guest speaker tells Portsmouth High grads

Stay focused and you won’t have regrets, says Rusty Forgue


PORTSMOUTH — Although the graduates themselves were the stars of the show Friday night, faculty members and school officials shared words of wisdom, and praised seniors for their perseverance during the COVID-19 pandemic.


RELATED: ‘We’re more than the senior class of the pandemic,' student speaker tells fellow graduates


The guest speaker was Rusty Forgue, a physical education teacher at PHS, who shared “three important life lessons” with graduates:

• Be nice and respectful — “I know those are two different things, but I usually sum it up by saying to my own kids, ‘Just be cool!’ Say ‘thank you,’ say ‘please,’ make eye contact when you are talking to someone. At least pretend like you are listening. Hold the door for someone behind you; you can still have your phone in your hand.”

Family first — “I don’t care if your buddy got a VIP suite at Gillette Stadium and the Patriots are playing the Buccaneers for a playoff spot. If your mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle want to go to Chili's for their birthday, you go to Chili’s. Watch the game on a big screen, and definitely don’t think about your buddy at the game; that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Stay focused — Mr. Forgue shared a story about the time, right after freshmen football ended, when the varsity wrestling coach approached him about going out for the team. “I’d like to think it was because I was a force on the field, but it was probably more to do with me weighing 85 pounds and them desperate for a lightweight,” he said.

His dad was friends with the wrestling coach, and he didn’t feel he had much say in the decision, but he gradually improved until he went undefeated during the regular season as a senior. He entered the state tournament as the No. 1 seed in his weight class, and  a local newspaper even ran a story about him on the front page. 

“The only problem was they used my teammate’s picture instead of mine,” he said, displaying the article. “My grandmother came over that day with a copy and told me it was a great picture of me. I just went with it.”

After winning the first three matches, he was in the finals against a Coventry opponent he had already beaten twice that season. But then he started thinking about Coventry and its dominance in wrestling. Maybe his opponent had gotten better? What if he loses?

“Before I knew it, the buzzer sounded and we shook hands for the second time — only this time my opponent's hand got raised. I had lost by a few points and was the runner-up,” Mr. Forgue said. 

He was angry at first but then regretful — something that he said was worse. “I felt regret because I wrestled that final match with such a lack of focus, I really didn’t even give myself a chance,” he said. He could have been focused and still lost, he added, but at least he wouldn’t have felt regret.

“My friends, you are on your way to great challenges and magnificent feats. Focus on your school work, on your job, focus on your family. Focus on the task at hand. Have no regrets. Succeed or know you did everything you could to succeed even if you do come up a little short,” he said.

Superintendent and parent

Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy, who said he was so happy that seniors could “experience a true Portsmouth High School graduation,” pointed out that he knew what it was like for them to manage their senior year during the pandemic. You see, Mr. Kenworthy has a daughter who’s a senior at a different school.

“Tomorrow, I get to sit where your family and friends are, to celebrate with her,” he said. “I’ve seen first hand, every morning and every evening, the anxiety and the uncertainty you have faced while trying to manage your senior year and map out your future. And even now as we are turning the corner on this pandemic, you are entering the most formative years of your lives.”

It’s OK to still feel anxious and uncertain, he said, because everyone does. “But we will get through everything just like we have the past 18 months,” said the superintendent. “At the end of the day, what matters most, what has gotten us through these past 18 months, are things like caring, and compassion, and empathy.”

‘Be your best self’

PHS Principal Joseph Amaral said he was particularly proud of the Class of 2021. 

“During these past two years, you’ve missed many events that are considered a rite of passage,” Mr. Amaral said. “All of us here sympathize with you. But through it all, you’ve gone about your business in meeting PHS with poise and grace.”

Hard work, perseverance and adaptability have served seniors well, he said. “You’ve had more time to reflect upon who you are and what you want to be, without too many distractions.”

He finished by telling seniors to “be bold, be courageous, be humble, and be your best self. Cherish these times with honesty and fidelity.”

A ‘caring’ class

Emily Copeland, who chairs the School Committee, said graduating seniors are part of “not only an accomplished class, but a caring one” as well.

“I think we’re all ready to get off the computers and dive into the world. It’s a time of celebration, optimism, new beginnings and hope. I’m personally joyous to see everybody’s face tonight,” she said.

Although students have faced many challenges and perhaps sadness over the course of the past 18 months, “you and your teachers have reinvented learning and teaching in many ways,” she said.

“You can now tell your kids not only did you have to walk to school both ways and through a snowstorm, but during a global pandemic. They’re never going to be able to top that,” Ms. Copeland said.

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