There is only one chair in the middle of social studies instructor Daniel Gill’s Glenfield Middle School classroom in Montclair, New Jersey.
It is neither a seat for a teacher to sit in while supervising the class nor a time-out chair for disruptive children.
For the caring instructor and his students, the empty chair serves as a reminder.
“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.
The instructor of social studies will never forget the incident that inspired this approach.
He initially told his pupils a tale about an interaction he and a buddy had in the 1950s back in the 1980s when he was teaching a lesson about the Civil Rights struggle in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Gill, a white nine-year-old, and Archie, his black closest friend, got ready to go to a birthday celebration in Gill’s New York City apartment. They walked to the residence and rang the bell while carrying gifts.
The mother of the celebrant opened it and then informed the two boys that there were no more chairs after taking a look at them.
Gill, who was perplexed, suggested sitting on the ground or requesting more seats, but the woman maintained there were none left. The realization that Archie wasn’t welcome because of the color of his skin finally hit them. The lads gave the woman their gifts before weeping their way back to Gill’s flat.
It was a meeting that stayed with Gill over the years and helped him get to where he is now.
“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.”
In her 52 years of teaching, Gill has played a significant role in the integration of Montclair’s public schools. He relocated to Montclair as a new teacher after leaving New York City and sought to turn Glenfield Middle School into a magnet school for the arts.
However, Gill is aware that there is always more 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, who is currently 75, intends to stop teaching after the 2022–2023 academic year. Although he is not pleased about it, he is appreciative of the opportunity.
“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.”
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.
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