Professor has kept an empty chair in the classroom for 50 years

When you walk into Dan Gill’s classroom at Glenfield High School in Montclair, New Jersey, you’ll likely notice the empty seat in the center.

Courtesy Dan Gill

It is 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.

“Every year I teach lessons around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday about the civil rights movement,” Gill told TODAY Parents. “I wanted to connect students in a personal way with what that meant.”

When Gill was nine years old, he said, he and his best friend Archie went to a birthday party at Gill’s apartment building in New York City. Presents in hand, the two boys, Gill, white, and Archie, black, rang the bell. The mother of the birthday boy looked at Archie and said there were no more chairs. Confused, Gill offered to sit on the floor or get more chairs. The woman repeated that there were no more chairs. Finally, Gill realized that Archie was not welcome because he was black. The boys left, both crying.

It is a day that has stayed with Gill for more than 60 years.

“We need to be an opportunity class,” Gill told TODAY. “Archie was denied the opportunity to go to the birthday party due to a prejudice the woman had.”

Gill said he didn’t know it at the time, but the Archie experience and the birthday party “got me where I am today.”

The teacher for more than 50 years was instrumental in the integration of 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, into a magnet school for the arts. The school became a model for desegregation of other schools.

But there is always more work to do.

“Children 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.”

Related: ‘Handshake teacher’ viral video shares heartfelt message for parents

He knows his message is resonating, he said TODAY, when visitors arrive in the classroom and children ask the newcomer “Do you know why we have that chair?”

“That’s the piece they’ve had,” Gill said.

She is now 75 years old and plans to retire from teaching after the 2022-2023 school year. But Gill is ready for a second act and spread the message of the empty chair far beyond Montclair.

At a recent literary festival, Gill pitched a book idea: “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 empty chairs in their classrooms.

“In my wildest dreams,” Gill told TODAY.com, “I hope that I teach kids how they can be better and how they can treat people better. I hope they will be decision makers in their own class.”

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