When you walk into Dan Gill’s classroom at Glenfield Middle School in Montclair, New Jersey, chances are you’ll notice the empty seat that sits in the center.
It’s not a time-out chair or a chair for an administrator to come and observe the class. The empty chair is a reminder. A reminder to Gill and a reminder to the students.
“Each year I teach lessons around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday about the Civil Rights movement,” Gill told TODAY Parents. “I wanted to connect the students in a personal way to what that meant.”
When Gill was nine, he said, he and his best friend Archie went to a birthday party in Gill’s New York City apartment building. Gifts in hand, the two boys — Gill, white, and Archie, Black — rang the bell. The mother of the child having the birthday looked at Archie and said there were no more chairs. Gill, confused, offered to sit on the floor or get more chairs. The woman repeated there were no more chairs. Finally, Gill realized Archie was not welcome because he was Black. The boys left, both crying.
It’s a day that’s stayed with Gill for more than 60 years.
“We need to be a class of opportunity,” Gill told TODAY. “Archie was denied the opportunity to go to the birthday party because of a bias the woman had.”
Gill said he didn’t know it at the time, but the experience of Archie and the birthday party “drove me to where I am today.”
The teacher for more than 50 years was instrumental in integrating Montclair public schools. He moved to Montclair from New York City as a new teacher and worked to transform Glenfield Middle School, where he teaches today, to become a magnet school for the arts. The school became a model for other schools’ desegregation.
But there’s always more work to be done.
“Kids work well with symbols,” Gill 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.”
He knows his message is resonating, he told TODAY, when visitors come to the classroom and the kids ask the newcomer “Do you know why we have that chair?”
“That’s the piece they have owned,” Gill said.
He’s 75 now and planning to retire from teaching after the 2022-2023 school year. But Gill is in for a second act — and spreading the message of the empty chair far beyond Montclair.
At a recent literary festival, Gill pitched the idea of a book — “No More Chairs.” It will be dedicated to Archie, who died last year. The two boys lost touch decades ago, but Gill has found his relatives on social media.
He hopes his book will inspire teachers to keep an empty chairs in their classrooms.
“In my wildest dreams,” Gill told TODAY.com, “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.”