Teachers teach us different things in English, history, and math, but it takes a very special kind of teacher to teach us about life. But one middle school teacher has always used an empty chair in his classroom as a way to teach his students about tolerance.
For 53 years, Dan Gill has been a teacher. In his social studies classroom at Glenfield Middle School, in Montclair, New Jersey, there’s an unusual feature: an empty chair right in the middle of the room is unoccupied by any student. But this seat has a very important lesson that Gill learned when he was a child in the 1950s.
Gill was 9 years old and lived in the South Bronx in 1956. He and his friend Archie were going to a birthday party for a friend. But soon after the boys were excited, they learned a hard lesson.
“All of us were dressed up. Back then, you went to a birthday party in a suit jacket and tie, and we were excited to have a great time,” “Gill told NJ.com. “And, lo and behold, it didn’t turn out to be all that fun.”
The birthday boy’s mother opened the door and let him in, but she didn’t let his friend Archie come in. The woman said there weren’t “enough chairs.” But it was clear that she didn’t want to talk to Archie because he was black.
Even though Gill was just a boy, he saw through the woman’s “chairs” argument (he says he had been to their house and knew they had “plenty of chairs”) and knew she was being prejudicial based on the color of the boy’s skin.
It disintegrated both of them. “We were sad. We are both.” Gill told the Washington Post, “I felt so bad because he had been put down.” “We gave her the presents, and I said we’re going to go to my house, where there are plenty of chairs.”
Around 1960, Mr. Gill lost touch with Archie, but he never forgot that day and how prejudice can hurt people. When he became a teacher, he resolved to make his students understand, too. Gill told TODAY, “We need to be a class of chance.” “The woman didn’t let Archie go to the birthday party because she didn’t like him.”
And that’s why he’s always had a chair in his room that’s been empty. It’s the chair that his friend Archie was cruelly kept from having. It’s a reminder that we should all try to accept others.
And for Mr. Gill, it’s a sign that his classroom will always be a place where everyone is treated with respect. He told CBS News, “I put a chair in my classroom so that anyone who comes there excited, like for a party, will feel welcome.”
The teacher of social studies talks to his students about things like the civil rights movement. But the “empty chair” is more powerful than any textbook could ever be because of what it stands for and how personal it is. Gill told Today, “Kids do well with symbols.” “It’s a reminder that they can do better in school, with their friends, and with their feelings. It’s also a way to make people feel welcome and make this a better place to live.”
Fellow teachers say that by teaching this important lesson, Gill has made a big difference in the lives of many generations of students. Tiffany Kiley, who works as a teaching assistant, told NJ.com, “He has a lot of passion.” “Every day is the same as the first.
Every day, he leaves his mark on these kids. I work with him, and he also teaches me.” “It keeps us grounded,” said principal Erika Pierce to CBS. “When we get sidetracked by politics or focus too much on something that isn’t as important, Mr. Gill can always bring us back.”
At the end of this school year, Mr. Gill will stop being a teacher after 53 years. But Gill’s story will live on even after he leaves the classroom. Gill wants to tell the whole world the story of Archie and the famous “empty chair” when he retires. He plans to do this by writing a book called “No More Chairs.”