Why this teacher keeps one chair empty in his middle school classroom

All 26 chairs in Dan Gill's middle school classroom are occupied - aside from one, which he leaves vacant.

For the past 30 years, the social studies teacher at Glenfield Middle School in Montclair, N.J., has kept an empty seat in the front corner of his classroom. It represents a childhood memory - which, Gill said, not only propelled him to become a teacher but also shaped the way he teaches.

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"The chair symbolizes that we will always have room in the classroom for anyone," said Gill, 75, who described Glenfield Middle School as having a diverse student body. "It symbolizes acceptance."

As a 9-year-old boy in New York City, Gill and his best friend at the time, Archie Shaw, went to a friend's birthday party together. When they knocked on the door of the friend's apartment, the child's mother looked disapprovingly at Archie - a Black boy. She invited Gill inside, then told Archie he had to go home because "there are no more chairs," Gill recalled her saying.

"I can still see this woman's face," he said, adding that he offered to sit on the floor and give Archie his seat. "She said: 'No, you don't understand. There are not enough chairs.' "

"That's when it hit me," Gill continued. "She was judging him because of the color of his skin."

Although he was only a child, he had some sense of the racial inequalities that plagued society. At the time, it was the beginning of the civil rights movement.

"I felt so bad because he had been humiliated," Gill said. "We gave her the presents and I said we're going to go to my house, where there are plenty of chairs."

In hindsight, Gill presumed the child's mother did not know her son had invited a Black boy to his birthday party. "I don't think she would have allowed it," he said.

Both boys, confused and hurt by what had happened, cried when they got back to Gill's house, he said. His mother took them for ice cream to cheer them up.

Gill lost touch with Shaw as they got older, but that day stayed seared in his mind and influenced his desire to become an educator.

"When I look back now, I think that really made me want to help young people," he said, explaining that he hoped to set a positive example. "Any bad behavior that kids have, they get it from an adult, and any good behavior they have, they get it from an adult."

When he began his teaching career 52 years ago, he started a tradition of telling the story to his students annually on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, "as a way to punctuate what the day means in the lives of ordinary people, and how they should act when confronted with racism," Gill said.

As he honed his teaching skills, Gill said he realized "kids learn really well through metaphors," he said. So, he decided to add an empty chair to his classroom about 30 years ago - and it has remained there ever since.

"It's been a really effective tool," said Gill, who teaches students in grades 6 to 8. The chair embodies "the idea of opportunity; it's the idea of welcoming; it's the idea of treating people with respect."

Over the years, the chair - and, more importantly, the story behind it - has resonated with students. One teen even made a customized necklace with a chair on it, Gill said.

Naturally, there have been a few students "that don't get it," Gill said, "but the group psychology of it is that the kids that do get it will explain it."

For Maggie Horn, 16, learning about the chair in 2017 left a strong impression on her. It's a story she regularly remembers and references often in conversations with peers.

"Its message was something that could speak to sixth-graders and allow us, for the first time, to understand what it meant to be privileged, and what it meant not to be," Horn said. "That was really powerful for us all."

"It helped me understand the idea of belonging, and that everyone deserves to feel like they belong," she added. "It helped me understand that everyone deserves a seat - quite literally."

Amid America's racial reckoning in 2020, Horn said the chair was the first thing that came to mind.

"I thought of Mr. Gill's story, and how timely it still is today," she said.

It is most rewarding, Gill said, "when they come back and visit me, and kids say, 'I always remember the chair.' "

Emily McCarthy, 25, is one such former student.

"When I think about the lessons that I learned from Mr. Gill, I think a lot of them started with that chair," she said.

School administrators said that Gill, who has been at the school for 45 years, has left an impression on the whole community. He was also heavily involved in the school's desegregation efforts in the 1970s.

"I often refer to him as our anchor," said Erika Pierce, the principal of Glenfield. "He is an amazing force to have in the building, and such a wealth of knowledge for all of us."

Students throughout the school - including those who have not been taught by Gill - are aware of the chair story, she added, explaining that he has shared it at schoolwide assemblies.

"The chair really speaks to his educational philosophy about inclusion and making sure that everyone feels that they have a place and a space, and that they're valued," Pierce said.

Now, Gill is getting the opportunity to tell the story to a wider audience. Last month, he won an impromptu book pitch at the Montclair Literary Festival, securing himself a publishing contract for a children's book he wrote, titled "No More Chairs."

He had no intention of participating in the "Pitch-a-Palooza," but at the last minute, he decided to give it a shot. Writing a book about the chair, Gill said, "has always been in the back of my mind."

Gill's one-minute pitch won against 13 contenders, an experience he called "so surreal."

The text for the book is complete, and Gill is now working with an editor to refine the writing. He is also in the process of finding an illustrator, and he hopes the book will be published within a year.

He plans to retire in 2023, but "through this fortuitous opportunity, I'm going to be able to still teach," Gill said. "I'm really happy that I now have a wider audience to share the story."

He will be dedicating the book to Archie Shaw, who passed away last year.

"It's wonderful to be able to share this meaningful story that can touch other people, and motivate them to open up their hearts," Gill said.

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