Teacher Reveals Why He's Kept An Empty Chair In His Classroom For 50 Years

A New Jersey teacher has revealed the significant reason why he has kept an empty chair in the center of his classroom for 50 years.
credit: Alan Ingram / Alamy.
Dan Gill, a teacher at Glenfield Middle School in Montclair told Today that the empty chair in his classroom is a symbolic reminder to himself and his students.

The reason behind the empty chair is inspiring but stems from an unfortunate childhood memory for Gill and his best friend Archie.

Gill told the publication that when he was nine years old, he and Archie went to a birthday party in his apartment building in New York City.

Watch Dan Gill's interview with CBS New York:

After showing up with gifts in their hands, Archie, a Black kid, was subjected to awful microaggressions in the 1950s. The mother of the child having the party looked at Archie and said there were no more chairs for him at the party.

A young Gill was left feeling confused, so he offered to sit on the floor or get more chairs for his friend, but the woman reiterated that there were no more chairs left for Archie.

Gill realized that Archie was not welcome at the birthday party because he's Black, leaving both boys in tears.

That one day has stayed with Gill for more than 60 years, and he uses it as a symbolic lesson for his students, especially during classes on the Civil Rights movement.

"Each year I teach lessons around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday about the Civil Rights movement," Gill told TODAY. "I wanted to connect the students in a personal way to what that meant."

Now, at age 75, Gill said that Archie's awful experience was instrumental to his teaching career. More than 50 years into his profession, Gill is named as a valuable asset in integrating Montclair public schools.

He moved to Montclair from New York City as a new teacher and worked to change Glenfield Middle School, where he teaches today. The school later became a representative of other schools’ desegregation.

"We need to be a class of opportunity," Gill continued. "Archie was denied the opportunity to go to the birthday party because of a bias the woman had."

To the senior, the best way to teach guiding principles to children is to work with symbols: "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."

Gill is planning to retire from teaching after the 2022-2023 school year. However, he is looking to spread the message of the empty chair in his next career.

At a recent literary festival, the teacher pitched the idea of a book titled No More Chairs, and it will be dedicated to Archie, who died last year. The two boys lost touch decades ago, but Gill said he found Archie's relatives on social media.

For Gill, the empty chair is a message of saving space for others, regardless of their race. He hopes his upcoming book will inspire more teachers to keep an empty chair in their classrooms.

"In my wildest dreams," Gill said. "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."

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