Abbey grad: Classmates ‘picked me up’ after failures

Catherine O’Hara of Portsmouth gives commencement speech

Posted 6/7/22

PORTSMOUTH — Catherine O’Hara told her fellow graduates at Portsmouth Abbey that she had “failed a lot” over her four years of high school, but nearly every time one of …

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Abbey grad: Classmates ‘picked me up’ after failures

Catherine O’Hara of Portsmouth gives commencement speech

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Catherine O’Hara told her fellow graduates at Portsmouth Abbey that she had “failed a lot” over her four years of high school, but nearly every time one of them was there to pick her up. 

O’Hara, who lives in Portsmouth, was elected by her classmates to give one of the commencement speeches during the Abbey’s graduation ceremony on Sunday, May 29.

When asked why she chose to attend Portsmouth Abbey, O’Hara acknowledged she had a “cheesy” reply:  “The people, the community. I know, pretty sappy.”

But that answer now has real substance to her as a graduation sixth-former,” she said.

“I have come to understand — as we all know by now — the Abbey unfortunately isn’t all s’mores and fire pits on the quad,” she said. “It’s naturally full of pressures and stress. When you mix in our rigorous academic environment with sports or extracurriculars while living away from family, life can get overwhelming. On this high-pressure campus, all we have is each other. We depend on each other in this community for happiness. Together, we overcome the struggles of the Abbey. And as a community, we grow — together. When we experience adversity together, we grow together.”

O’Hara said she was “crushed” when she wasn’t appointed as a prefect, one of the highest leadership opportunities at the Abbey — over the summer. 

“I dreamed of being a prefect and leading a dorm of 40 girls in all aspects of residential life. I saw prefect as an opportunity to experience real leadership, and I felt confident in my ability to contribute to the community. Unfortunately, this notice initially felt more like rejection from the community I loved,” she said.

She was embarrassed and ashamed, but her friends acknowledged her sadness and helped her realize she had more to offer the school community, O’Hara said.

That was possible, she said, because of the nature of the Abbey community. Since third-form year, she had been on campus 24/7. “I stayed for study hall, for as long as I could before we day students were kicked out at night. I came in on Sundays. Some boarding students never really understood why I did this, but I was so excited to have the opportunity to spend time with my friends long after the academic school day was over,” she said.

By being on campus so often, she got to learn the ins and outs of the Abbey, along with all the day students. “This experience isn’t like other schools. These times were important to me because they were strengthening our community. It’s part of the Abbey’s culture — the community,” she said.

The faculty also contributed to the community support, she said. “A simple text from a caring coach, Dr. Zins, helped me see that he believed in me and my ability to lead. We didn’t have an insane record that season, but our team grew closer than I’ve ever seen it, and I had my favorite season playing because of his support and the community on the team,” she said.

A sense of community isn’t fostered when people are only looking out for themselves, O’Hara said. 

“And it may feel like community, when we spend the sunniest days on the Quad together. But those days are sweet only because we have spent the winters together. Broken down by all that we’ve experienced in the last four years, we have built each other back up,” she said.

8 from Portsmouth

Eight of the Abbey graduates live in Portsmouth: Gwenyth Sands Bragan, Marlayna Christine Camera, Charlotte Mary Capone, Marron Elizabeth Gibbons, Mason E. Holling, Davis Woo-Kyung Lee, Flynn Edward O'Connell, and Catherine Lis O'Hara.

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