In the midst of Daniel Gill’s Glenfield Middle School classroom in Montclair, New Jersey, there is only place for an empty chair. Gill is a social studies teacher there.
It is neither a teacher’s seat for class supervision nor a time-out chair for disruptive students. The empty chair serves as a reminder for the concerned instructor and his students.
The father of three stated, “I placed a chair in my classroom so that everyone who enters my classroom anticipating a party will feel welcome.”
The social studies instructor will never forget the incident that inspired this empty chair method.
In the 1980s, when he was giving a lesson about the Civil Rights fight in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he initially told his students a story about a conversation he and a friend had in the 1950s.
Gill, a nine-year-old white boy, and Archie, his closest black buddy, prepared to attend a birthday party in Gill’s New York City apartment. With gifts, they proceeded to the apartment and rang the doorbell before entering.
After inspecting the chairs, the mother of the celebrant informed the two boys that there were no more available.
Gill, bewildered, proposed sitting on the ground or asking for additional chairs, but the woman insisted that none were available. They finally realized that Archie was not welcome due to the color of his skin. The men presented the woman with their gifts before returning to Gill’s apartment in tears.
It was a meeting that impacted Gill over the years and helped him reach his current position.
He stated, “We must be a class of opportunity.” Archie was refused the opportunity to attend the birthday party due to the woman’s prejudice.
Gill has played a vital part in the integration of Montclair’s public schools over her 52 years as a teacher. After leaving New York City, he went to Montclair as a new teacher and attempted to transform Glenfield Middle School into an arts magnet school.
Gill is, however, conscious that there is always more work to be done.
He stated, “Children work well with symbols.” “It’s a reminder that they can do more academically, socially, and emotionally, but also to make others feel welcome and improve the quality of life here.”
When visitors enter the classroom and the children ask the newcomer, “Do you know why we have that chair?” the social studies instructor knows the message is being received.
Gill, who is currently 75 years old, plans to retire from teaching after the 2022–2023 academic year. Even though he is not delighted, he is grateful for the opportunity.
“I’ve been fortunate with the opportunity to create something sustainable that works and tackles many of the concerns we need to address, which is to help young people learn and explore, and to help a disadvantaged population advance in the world,” he said.
“I’ve been doing what I love for the past 52 years,” he added. Being constantly surrounded by young individuals who inspire me and educate me on how to be a better person has kept me young. “I’ve never worked a day in my life.”
At a recent literary festival, he proposed a book entitled “No More Chairs” that will be dedicated to Archie, who passed away in 2021. After high school, the childhood pals lost contact, but Gill was able to locate his relatives through social media. He intends to contact Archie’s daughter.
Gill hopes that the book will encourage his colleagues to leave empty seats in their courses.
“In my wildest hopes, I hope it teaches children how to be better and how to treat others better.” He stated, “I hope they will be decision-makers in their own class.”
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