When you enter social studies teacher Daniel Gill’s Glenfield Middle School classroom in Montclair, New Jersey, you will notice a lone chair sitting in the center.
It’s not for an administrator to occupy while observing the class, nor is it a time-out chair for unruly students.
The empty chair is a reminder for the kindhearted teacher and his students.
“I put a chair in my classroom so that anybody who comes to my classroom filled with anticipation, like a party, would feel welcome,” the father of three said.
This practice was brought about by an incident that the social studies teacher will never forget.
In the 1980s, during a lesson about the Civil Rights movement for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he first shared a story with his students about an encounter he and a friend had in the 1950s.
A nine-year-old Gill, white, and his best friend, Archie, black, prepared to attend a birthday party in the New York City apartment where Gill lived. Bearing gifts, they went to the house and rang the bell.
The celebrant’s mother opened it and looked at the two boys before telling them there were no more chairs.
Confused, Gill offered to sit on the floor or get more chairs, but the woman insisted there were no more chairs. Finally, it dawned on them that Archie wasn’t welcome because of the color of his skin. The boys handed the woman their presents and went back to Gill’s apartment, crying.
It’s an encounter that stuck with Gill through the years and drove him to where he is today.
“We need to be a class of opportunity,” he said. “Archie was denied the opportunity to go to the birthday party because of a bias the woman had.”
Gill has been teaching for 52 years and was instrumental in integrating Montclair public schools. He left New York City, moved to Montclair as a new teacher, and worked to transform Glenfield Middle School into a magnet school for the arts.
But Gill knows there’s always more work to be done.
“Kids work well with symbols,” he said. “It’s a reminder that they can do better — better academically, socially, and emotionally — but also to make people feel welcome and make this a better place to live.”
The social studies teacher knows the message is resonating when visitors come to the classroom, and the students ask the newcomer, “Do you know why we have that chair?”
Gill, now 75, plans to retire from teaching after the 2022-2023 school year. He’s not happy about it, but he is grateful for the experience.
“I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to build something sustainable that works and addresses many of the issues we need to address, which is to help young people learn and explore, and help an underserved population move up in the world,” he said.
“I’ve had 52 years of doing what I love,” he added. “It has kept me young, being surrounded by young people who energize me and teach me how to be a better person all the time. I never had to work a day in my life.”
But Gill is in for another mission—to spread the message of the empty chair beyond Montclair.
At a recent literary festival, he pitched the idea of a book called “No More Chairs,” which will be dedicated to Archie, who passed away last year. The childhood friends lost touch in high school, but Gill found his relatives on social media. He plans to reach out to Archie’s daughter.
Gill hopes the book will inspire his fellow teachers to keep empty chairs in their classrooms.
“In my wildest dreams, I hope it imparts to kids how they can be better and how they can treat people better. I hope they will be decision-makers in their own class,” he said.
Click on the video below from CBS News to learn more about this story.
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