Legendary Glenfield teacher Dan Gill’s life lesson on racism, ‘No more chairs,’ gets book deal
Dan Gill, a 52-year Montclair educator, has been offered a major publishing contract for his upcoming children's book, “No More Chairs.”
“No More Chairs” was first pitched at the Montclair Literary Festival last month during Pitch-a-Palooza, an event organized by husband and wife duo David Sterry and Arielle Eckstut. Pitch-a-Palooza is Sterry and Eckstut’s version of an “American Idol”-like contest, but for books.
Sterry and Eckstut, who are Montclair residents and authors themselves, have traveled around the country holding Pitch-a-Palooza for 15 years, giving authors an opportunity to share their ideas and have them tweaked. Individuals are given one minute to pitch their story, and then the judges provide them with feedback on how to fix their pitch, the potential in the marketplace and other advice.
At the end of the event, a winning pitch is chosen by Sterry and Eckstut, and that author receives an introduction to an agent or editor.
“The point of the event is to elevate writers who don’t always get a chance to sit at the publishing table,” Eckstut said.
Gill’s story won the Pitch-a Palooza after he decided to pitch at the last minute. Although his pitch wasn’t planned, his children’s book had been years in the making.
The inspiration for the book comes from a pivotal moment in Gill’s life, when he was 9 years old and going to attend a birthday party with his friend, Archie Shaw, who was Black. The mother at the birthday party answered the door and did not let the boys in because, she claimed, “there are no more chairs,” which Gill believes was directed toward his Black friend.
Gill, who has been teaching at Glenfield Middle School for 45 years (and 52 in the Montclair district), has shared this story with his middle schoolers for decades. First prompted by the desire to personalize lessons taught about discrimination and racism on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Gill found that his story spoke to his young students.
“I think it kind of hit home with them that this is something that shouldn’t go on, and that they can’t be spectators,” he said. “They have to actively participate in making sure there’s a chair in their heart for everybody.”
After a student told him he should write the story down, that’s exactly what Gill did, and he didn’t stop there. As he wrote it, he also decided to make the symbolism behind his story reality. In 1990 he began keeping an open chair in his middle school classroom.
“I felt like the chair could symbolize for my students the idea that we need to respect everybody, and that anybody who walks into the classroom, we need to have a place in our heart for them,” he said.
The witnessing of discrimination at a young age did not just culminate in Gill’s novel and storytelling in the classroom, it also guided his time as an educator, particularly during the desegregation era for public schools in the United States.
He began teaching at Glenfield in 1970, during which time the middle school was being criticized for unequal education compared to the others in the community. The district attempted to fix this by requiring forced busing, which ultimately failed. This prompted Gill to become part of a plan to create a magnet school system for the middle schools, something he believes was incredibly successful.
His background in education, integration of schools and personal story played a role in convincing Eckstut and Sterry to choose his pitch at Pitch-a-Palooza.
“When Mr. Gill told his story, it was like complete silence in the audience,” Eckstut said. “People had a very emotional response to the story.”
Since he pitched his story in early May, Gill says things have moved quickly. He was offered a publishing contract for his book from the Hachette Book Group and now has a book agent. There is no definite timeline on when the book will be published, but he estimates around a year.
One thing Gill is sure of is that he will be dedicating the book to Archie, whom he lost touch with in high school. He recently learned that his friend died last year due to COVID-19. Gill plans to reach out to Archie’s daughter soon and speak to her about her father and the book.