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Montclair teacher Daniel Gill's personal tale of empathy and inclusion wins local book pitch competition

New Jersey teacher turns troubling encounter into lesson for students
New Jersey teacher turns troubling encounter into lesson for students 02:19

MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- In these divisive times, hope is needed now more than ever, and we found it in a New Jersey classroom.

CBS2's Aundrea Cline-Thomas met a Montclair teacher who makes space for everyone to be welcomed in a very special way.

For 52 years at Glenfield Middle School, Daniel Gill has taught the whole child well beyond a specific subject.

"One of my jobs is to take complex ideas and make them meaningful to kids," Gill said.

In the '80s, during a lesson for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Gill shared a story about a birthday party he tried to attend at 9 years old with his friend Archie.

"The woman who is the mother opened the door and said that I could go in but that Archie couldn't because there were no more chairs," Gill said.

It was the 1950's and Archie is Black.

"I said, no problem, I'll sit on the floor. And she said to me, no, I didn't understand. There are no more chairs," Gill said.

Stunned, they left the party, but that's why as a teacher, Gill always leaves an empty chair open in his classroom.

"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 said.

The chair is more than a symbol, it's a guiding principal for Gill, who helped integrate the school and now leads with empathy as students navigate the educational and emotional toll of the pandemic.

"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 said.

Generations of students have heard the story, but when Mr. Gill recounted it at the Montclair Public Library during a book pitch competition...

"My mouth dropped open ... becaus, you know this is a book," said David Henry Sterry, organizer of "Pitch-a-palooza."

A book that will be dedicated to Archie.

"Not all of us can become president, not all of us can become senators, but if all of us do our due diligence in how we treat other people, then this will be a better world," Gill said.

After losing touch for decades, Gill just learned his childhood friend Archie passed away last year, but now Gill plans to reach out to Archie's daughter, hoping she can be a part of the process of telling their story.

Gill plans to retire next school year, marking 53 years on the job.

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