Teacher Keeps Empty Chair in Classroom for Over 50 Years for an Incredibly Touching Reason

Teachers do more than simply give lessons on people, places, and dates to memorize. And though they teach us the fundamentals of how to read, write, and solve equations, some also go beyond the basics. Teachers are some of the most impactful people in their students' lives. Dan Gill, a social studies teacher at Glenfield Middle School in Montclair, New Jersey, takes the opportunity to positively impact young minds very seriously.

After 52 years of teaching, he knows a thing or two about how to get through to his students. “One of my jobs is to take complex ideas and make them meaningful to kids,” he says. “Kids work well with symbols,” he points out, which is why he's kept an empty chair in the center of his classroom for the last several decades.

In the 1980s, during a lesson about the Civil Rights movement for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Gill first shared a story with his students about a deeply troubling encounter he and a friend experienced in 1950s. A 9-year-old Gill, white, and his best friend, Archie, Black, went to a birthday part in Gill's New York City apartment building. When they rang the bell, the mother of the child having the party looked at the two boys, and told Gill there were no more chairs. Confused, he offered to sit on the floor or to get more chairs. The woman repeated that there were no more chairs. Finally, both boys realized that Archie was not welcome because he was Black. Gill and Archie both left in tears. It was an interaction Gill would never forget, and drove him to where he is today.

“I put a chair in my classroom so that anybody who comes to my classroom filled with anticipation, like a party, would feel welcome,” he says. The chair, and what it symbolizes, is Gill's guiding principal as a teacher and as a person, and is the reason why he faithfully teaches his students the importance of taking responsibility for how they treat other people, regardless of how significant the interaction may seem. “Not all of us can become president,” he says, “not all of us can become senators, but if all of us do our due diligence in how we treat other people, then this will be a better world.”

Gill says he knows the message is sinking in when his students ask visitors to the classroom, Do you know why we have that chair? “It's a reminder that they can do better,” he elaborates. “but to also make people feel welcome.”

Driven by his experience with Archie, Gill moved from New York City to Montclair as a new teacher, and played an important role in integrating the city's public schools. Glenfield Middle School, where he's taught ever since, became a model for other schools' desegregation, and a magnet school for the arts. Though he plans to retire after the 2022–2023 school year, he will continue to spread the message. At a recent literary festival, Gill pitched the idea for a book entitled No More Chairs. It will be dedicated to Archie, who passed away last year. After losing touch with his childhood best friend for decades, Gill found Archie's family on social media, and plans to reach out to Archie's daughter. He hopes she can be part of the process of telling the boys' story.

The book will be an extension of what he's spent the last 52 years doing: helping kids to learn, to explore their interests, to respect others, and to believe in themselves. “It's like planting a crop, seeing kids grow, Gill says. “When you have them for three years, you can see them grow. You try to pull out enough of the weeds that they survive and don't wither through the challenges of their lives.” And the kids, in turn, teach him. “I've had 52 years of doing what I love,” Gill admits. “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.”

When Dan Gill was 9 years old in the 1950s, he tried to attend a birthday party with his best friend, Archie. The mother hosting the party denied a seat to Archie, who was Black, by repeating, “There are no more chairs.”

Gill has been a teacher for 52 years and he says, “I put a chair in my classroom so that anybody who comes to my classroom filled with anticipation, like a party, would feel welcome.”

h/t: [TODAY]

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