Teacher Dan Gill was heartbroken as a kid when a white woman refused to host him and his Black friend at a birthday party.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 15, 2022. It has since been updated.
Everyone who's been in Dan Gill's classroom at Glenfield Middle School in Montclair, New Jersey, knows there's an empty chair in his classroom. It's deliberate and it has always been there. The chair is always empty and to Dan Gill, it teaches a life lesson that every student who walks through his doors ought to know. “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.” The chair is meant to represent a seat that wasn't offered to his friend, an African American when they were children, recalled Gill. He was just 9 when the incident happened.
Gill and his best friend Archie went to a birthday party in Gill’s New York City apartment building. They were excited about the party and carried gifts for the kid celebrating their birthday. Gill was white and his friend Archie was Black. They rang the bell and waited. The mother of the kid opened the door, looked at Archie and told them there were no more chairs. Gill said it wasn't a problem. They would sit on the floor or fetch some chairs if needed. The woman repeated that there were no more chairs. It was only then that it hit Gill that Archie wasn't welcome because of the color of his skin. Both of them left with tears streaming down their faces.
Gill could never shake off that incident of racial discrimination that his friend suffered. “Archie was denied the opportunity to go to the birthday party because of a bias the woman had,” he said. Gill said that one incident defined him and life's purpose in many ways. It “drove me to where I am today,” he said. Gill moved from New York to Montclair, where he worked as a teacher for 50 years. He was a crucial cog in integrating Montclair public schools. Glenfield Middle School, where he was a model for other schools’ desegregation.
While America has changed a lot for the better since he and his friend were denied entry into a birthday party, Gill believes there's still a lot more to do. “Kids work well with symbols,” said Gill “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.”
The chair is a fixture in his class and the kids take it upon themselves to spread the message each time they have a newcomer. “Do you know why we have that chair?” said Gill. “That’s the piece they have owned.” Gill is now 75 and will retire from teaching after the 2022-2023 school year, but he is eager to continue spreading the message of what the empty chair in his classroom symbolizes. He has pitched a book idea titled “No More Chairs” and wants to dedicate it to his dear friend Archie, who died in 2021.
Over the years, the pair had lost touch, but Gill recently tracked down his relatives through social media. He is also hoping other teachers keep an empty chair to remind people of the message he has been trying to spread. "In my wildest dreams. 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," he said.