NISKAYUNA — John G. Reilly knows how to fly.
As part of a long career with the U.S. Army, Reilly wore a parachute on his back and fell through clouds at 120 miles per hour. He knows about luck; he knows about risk.
Reilly believes 343 new graduates of Niskayuna High School are ready to fly -- and take risks.
"Life without risk sounds like a safe and comfortable proposition," Reilly said Thursday night, addressing the class of 2019 during the teens' graduation ceremony at Proctors in Schenectady. "But it's simply not possible.
"We have to take risks to achieve the goals that produce fulfillment in our lives," Reilly said. "For every dream we have and goal we set there is the opportunity for failure. The good news -- you can be in control -- and you are worth the risk. Each and every graduate is already a proven winner.
"Niskayuna High School is no ordinary place," Reilly added. "Remember that and your dreams are worth the risk. Remember that and you will succeed."
Reilly, a member of Niskayuna's class of 1982 and a retired colonel, also asked the young men and women to embrace civility.
"I care not your gender or orientation, your race, your religion or politics, your goals, dreams and the risks that you are willing to embrace to achieve them," Reilly said. "Our nation faces a dilemma, a situation in which many are so unwilling to listen to different perspectives that it threatens our ability to communicate and collaborate. It affects our ability to be effective as a nation.
"I ask you all to be civil to one another, to work towards understanding, to be open to opposing views and compromise," Reilly continued. "These times demand that of you."
Reilly, a career special forces officer who also was inducted into the high school's Hall of Fame, also brought humor to his remarks. "In the Army we have a saying about speeches," he said. "Be brief, be brilliant, be gone."
Some young adults found it hard to believe they were now gone from their academic headquarters on Balltown Road.
"Can't believe it's happening," said David West, 17, as he joined his red- and silver-gowned classmates in the processional line behind the theater. "It feels like just yesterday I was walking into kindergarten."
"I worked really hard to get here," said Jordan McCann, 17. "And it's nice to see my efforts in school pay off."
"It's weird," said Griffin King, 18. "We're almost done, it went by fast. We're here."
Class President Tessa Xiaoman Hilt, in her welcoming remarks, told her brother and sister students that graduation was "kind of a big deal."
"Because of that, maybe you're feeling overwhelmed or maybe nervous or maybe even excited," she said. "Whatever you are feeling, remember it and enjoy it. This is our commencement ceremony, a celebration of four years of rigorous academia and hard work."
Hilt remembered school years past. As freshman, the new high school students worried about being crushed against lockers by seniors.
"As seniors, we worried about being crushed against the lockers by the freshmen," she said. "Some of the freshmen are like six feet tall."
Hilt retrieved memories of homecoming dances, Halloween celebrations, exam stress, finding prom dates. "Not only have we experienced life within Niskayuna, but we have been involved in issues that extend socially and globally," Hilt said. "We have lived through groundbreaking moments."
She said social unrest in today's world continues, with hate crimes, gender and racial inequality, climate change and ever-increasing gun violence. "This year Niskayuna experienced the reality of one of these issues," Hilt said, "when we had a six-hour lockdown. We realized these issues can affect anyone and nothing changes if our actions don't change."
Hilt also said students became advocates for different movements and causes. "For the first time ever this year, Niskayuna High School hosted a multi-cultural fair," she said, "which celebrated the many cultures that bring diversity and richness to the community."
Dr. Cosimo Tangorra, Niskayuna's superintendent of schools, said class members have distinguished themselves as leaders.
"I watched with pride as they found their voice and advocated for what they believed in," Tangorra said. "Tonight we celebrate talented and eloquent men and women you've grown into. You should know how grateful we all are to have been part of your time in Niskayuna."
Music was a major part of the graduation program. The school's symphonic band performed pieces such as "Pomp and Circumstance" and "The Star Spangled Banner." Smaller student groups performed "In My Life" by The Beatles, "Come Alive" from "The Greatest Showman" movie "The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World.
The graduates filled the theater's first 12 seating rows. They began walking to the stage at 8:04 p.m. to receive their diplomas from Principal John W. Rickert, with Tangorra standing by to offer extra congratulations. Faculty members stationed on entry and exit sides of the stage made sure all graduates received a school pin and a red flower.
There were handshakes, some hugs, some boisterous cheers and some teens waving or smiling to friends and relatives -- who filled the theater -- as they walked toward Rickert. A few young people made lively entrances, quick-stepping on stage to get their diplomas.
By 8:40 p.m., 343 young adults were back in their seats. They received one more directive from the faculty: stand up and turn tassels on their mortar boards from right to left.
They were now, officially, graduates.
Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]