Teachers teach us a variety of things in a number of subjects, whether its English or history or math — but it takes a very special kind to teach us about life.
But one middle school teacher has always made it his mission to teach his students something about tolerance — using an empty chair in his classroom.
Dan Gill has been a teacher for 53 years. 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 symbolic seat holds an important lesson — one that, for Gill, dates back to his childhood in the 1950s.
In 1956, at the age of 9, Gill lived in South Bronx. He was headed towards a friend’s birthday party, along with his friend Archie. But the boys’ excitement soon turned into a bitter lesson.
“We were all dressed up. Back in those days, you wore suit jacket and tie to a birthday party and we were looking forward to having a great time,” Gill told NJ.com. “And lo and behold, it turned out to be not such a great time.”
The birthday boy’s mother opened the door, allowed him inside… but rejected his friend Archie.
The woman said that there weren’t “enough chairs.” But it was clear that she was turning the other boy away: Archie 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.
Both of them were left devastated: “We cried. The both of us.”
“I felt so bad because he had been humiliated,” Gill told the Washington Post. “We gave her the presents and I said we’re going to go to my house, where there are plenty of chairs.”
Mr. Gill lost touch with Archie around 1960, but he never forgot that day, and the impact that prejudice can have. When he became a teacher, he resolved to make his students understand, too.
“We need to be a class of opportunity,” Gill told Today. “Archie was denied the opportunity to go to the birthday party because of a bias the woman had.”
And that’s the reason why he has always kept an empty chair in his room. It’s the chair that his friend Archie was so cruelly denied, and a symbol of the acceptance of others that we should all strive for.
And for Mr. Gill, it’s a symbol that his classroom will always be one free of prejudice.
“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 told CBS News.
The social studies teacher teaches his students subjects like the civil rights movement. But the symbolism and the personal nature of the “empty chair” make an impact that no textbook ever could.
“Kids work well with symbols,” Gill told Today “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.”
Thanks to this important lesson, Gill has made a big impact on generations of students, his fellow faculty members say.
“The passion he has is extraordinary,” teaching assistant Tiffany Kiley told NJ.com. “Every day is like his first day. He leaves his mark on these children day after day. I work next to him, and he’s teaching me, too.”
“It keeps us anchored, and so sometimes, when we get distracted and politics get in the way or you hyper-focus on something that’s not as important, Mr. Gill can always bring us back,” Principal Erika Pierce told CBS.
After 53 years of teaching, Mr. Gill will retire at the end of this school year.
However even after Gill leaves the classroom, his story will live on. After he retires, Gill plans to write a book called No More Chairs, sharing the story of Archie and the famous “empty chair” with the whole world.