The civil rights movement has come a long way since the 1950s, but we still have a ways to go to achieve true equality.
Daniel Gill has been helping to open young minds as a teacher for the past 52 years. He grew up in New York City and began his career there before moving to Glenfield Middle School in Montclair, New Jersey. From the moment he started at Glenfield, he became instrumental in desegregating the school to make it inclusive for people of all ethnicities.
Dan has always been a champion for civil rights because he grew up witnessing the ugly effects of segregation and prejudice. That’s why he keeps an empty chair in his classroom, and every year when he teaches his lesson around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, he tells his students why.
In the 1950s, 9-year-old Dan was invited to a birthday party in his New York City apartment complex. He and his friend Archie, who was Black, showed up at the party with presents, excited to see their friends, but the birthday boy’s mother met them at the door. She told Dan that he could come in, but that there “weren’t enough chairs” for Archie to attend.
Dan offered to sit on the floor so they both could go to the party, but she said no. The boys were devastated when they realized that “not enough chairs” meant that a Black child was not welcome in her home. They both left in tears, and the feeling stuck with Dan for his whole life.
“We need to be a class of opportunity,” Dan explained about his own classroom. “Archie was denied the opportunity to go to the birthday party because of a bias the woman had.”
Dan says that students tend to learn through symbols, so he keeps the chair there to remind them that everyone is welcome in his classroom.
“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,” he said.
Dan will retire from teaching after the 2022-2023 school year, but he’s taking his message of inclusion and acceptance to an even larger audience. At a recent literary festival he pitched a book idea called “No More Chairs” to publishers. Although Archie passed away in 2021, Dan has reached out to his family.
“I hope it imparts to kids how they can be better and how they can treat people better,” he says of the upcoming book. “I hope they will be decision-makers in their own class.”
It’s amazing how such a simple symbol can convey so much. Dan’s story is powerful, and it reminds us that we are all responsible for making the people around us feel welcome, comfortable, and equal.
Don’t forget to share this story to remind others of the importance of inclusivity.
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