BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Caps, gowns, pomp, circumstance; the predictable pageantry of graduation is often a drawn-out cliche whose most interesting feature is the quest to keep Grandpa awake in the seats.
It takes a lively academic community to provide the exception to that scenario. Niskayuna High School was just that Thursday night.
The unusual fun began with a pre-ceremony concert by the high school’s symphonic band, whose second piece was “Godzilla Eats Las Vegas” by Eric Whitacre. Whitacre was inspired by his own graduation to write the piece, imagined as the soundtrack to a campy monster movie (After spending seven years as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Whitacre felt somewhat less affectionate toward the city than Niskayuna graduates presumably feel about their hometown).
The band’s entertaining prelude concluded, and commencement speaker and senior class president Rachel Padula started off her lively address by greeting her classmates from several different time zones.
“Good evening, good afternoon and good morning,” she said from the Proctors stage, reminding her peers they would soon find themselves spread across the country and, likely, the globe.
Then, instead of listing and lauding the Class of 2015’s achievements, Padula instead launched into a tough-love talk that covered risk, failure and student loans.
“It’s a terrifying thing, all this newness, all this unpredictability, all this chaos,” said Padula, who will likely need her own advice when she faces the twin rigors of Ivy League sports and academics; she will study industrial and labor relations at Cornell University in the fall and was recruited for the school’s rowing team.
Padula encouraged her fellow graduates to keep up their friendships, because while risk-taking is important, it doesn’t always feel good. She also advised them to remember their strengths and their intrinsic value, even when others don’t, and to seek out happiness over financial gain when necessary.
Allowing just the right touch of cliche to creep in, Padula quoted Walt Disney to underscore her down-to-earth speech: “Everyone falls down. Getting back up is how you learn to walk.”
When it came time for the 2015 Niskayuna Hall of Fame inductee to speak, anyone other than a Pulitzer Prize winner would’ve had a hard time following Padula. But that’s who Gilbert King is.
King graduated from Niskayuna High School in 1980 and won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction after penning the New York Times bestseller “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, The Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.” Like Padula, King talked to the graduates about failure: the Major League Baseball career he dreamed about but never had, and the standup comedy career that never really launched.
After making a living as a fashion photographer in New York City, he realized he’d rather be telling stories with words than images, and finally found the success he had been chasing.
“I simply got to work. The work was the difference,” he said. “It’s nothing I ever dreamed about, and yet there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”
Like Padula, King also talked about the relationships from Niskayuna that still steady him today; however, he spoke from a place of experience, rather than one of hopefulness.
“My closest friends today are the ones I met at Van Antwerp Middle School, back when Gerald Ford was president,” King said, looking forward to his 35-year reunion in the fall.
“I hope many of you, like me, are pleasantly surprised by where life is taking you: a place beyond dreams,” he said in closing.
It takes intelligent, creative, resilient young adults to face the world today, whether as college freshmen, military recruits or job seekers. And that’s what the 320 members of Niskayuna High School’s Class of 2015 are.