John Mogulescu is now the senior University dean for academic affairs. But in 1968, he was a newly minted sixth-grade teacher at P.S. 20 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
The job was a challenge: A young, white teacher viewed by a class of black students as a “a hippy with a ponytail.” They weren’t even sure he was really a teacher.
Ultimately, the students grew to respect and adore him, according to Joy Palmer. She should know. Palmer was one of “Mr.” Mogulescu’s best pupils in 1968.
Now at CUNY, more than four decades later, she is among his best alum.
As the result of a happy coincidence, Palmer now holds a master’s in Disabilities Studies from the University’s School of Professional Studies, where Mogulescu also serves CUNY as dean.
This unusual reunion of teacher and student began about three years ago at an SPS awards ceremony. Mogulescu was the opening speaker. Palmer was there, too, receiving a post-baccalaureate Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies. (She was among the first cohort of students to graduate from the school, which opened in 2003 at the University Center.)
At the ceremony, Palmer noted Mogulescu’s name on the program. She was amazed. “It can’t be John,” she said to another student. But it was. Later, when she came on stage, she says “we hugged and cried.”
“We immediately looked at each other,” Mogulescu agrees, echoing his student’s story of the meeting. “We recognized each other and gave each other a big hug.”
This, though, was only the beginning of Palmer’s SPS education. The student, now 56, went on to earn a master’s in Disability Studies from the school in 2011. Mogulescu placed the master’s degree hood over her academic gown. Now, she works as an adult day/supported employment supervisor at HeartShare Human Service of New York.
Of Mogulescu as a young teacher, Palmer says that she and the other students “gave him a hard time. But he was very professional. He was determined to deal with this group of black kids who were rowdy and uncontrollable, but he knew we could learn. We didn’t make him nervous.”
“I was a new teacher and didn’t know how to discipline and anger-manage a classroom,” Mogulescu agrees. “At times the children presented challenges for me.”
But about Palmer, she says, “I noticed her almost immediately. She was 11 or 12. She was very assertive; enthusiastic; and she was one of the leaders of the class. She was very outgoing.” For Black History Month she recited Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream,” speech. She did it in this incredibly wonderful, proud, confident way. I liked Joy’s spirit and her enthusiasm, and also she was very smart. She was certainly a good deal above average.
He even kept one of her homework assignments, a poem she wrote about Langston Hughes.
Nevertheless, getting to where she is today was not always a smooth ride for Palmer. Her mother died when she was 7, and she was raised by her father who, fortunately, instilled a passion for education in her. But she also had to overcome struggles with alcoholism and drugs. For a time she survived on public assistance.
Before obtaining her CUNY degrees, she worked in the social welfare field and held management positions. She coordinated the Welfare-to-Work program at the Italian-American Civil Rights League; advocated for elderly people to receive food stamps and other benefits at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Legal Training Academy; and she was director of supported employment at Midwood Development Agency.
Along the way she also earned a bachelor’s in human services at the Audrey Cohen College (renamed the Metropolitan College of New York). She enrolled in Brooklyn College, too, but dropped out after a year because her father couldn’t afford the tuition.
In her late 30s, while she was employed at Midwood Development Agency, Palmer enrolled in the SPS Certificate Course in Disability, attending classes from 6:30 to 9 p.m. after a full day’s work. When it was introduced, she signed up for the 30-credit graduate course. She paid for both courses out of her own pocket, augmented with SPS scholarships and tuition reimbursement from Midwood Development Corp. and HeartShare.
“The information I derived from the certificate course broadened my awareness about disabilities,” she says. “Prior to that I thought of disability as a person with mental illness, but there are learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities. It just opened up a new world for me. Medical disability and the social aspects were very new to me.
She says that the SPS graduate course empowered her to be an advocate, service provider and fundraiser. “I am able to deal with a person for their individual disability in a way that is effective I can identify barriers that stop people from being included in society. It may be as simple as a curb cut, a ramp.” To this she adds,
“We have to change stigma, stereotype; everybody with disability is not mentally ill and violent.”
Mariette J. Bates, academic director of disability studies programs at SPS, says that Palmer was viewed as a smart student with a unique perspective by students and faculty alike. “I think Joy had a highly developed sense of social justice as it relates to people with disabilities; she had a unique sensibility about that, about how systems affect people’s lives from a social justice perspective. That’s one of the reasons she stood out. I think our program helped her to have a broader vision and a sense of context but she clearly brought to the program an awful lot of life experience and passion.”
Looking back on her days as a sixth-grade student of Mogulescu’s, Palmer speaks about how studying slavery and the work of abolitionists stirred in her “a passion for what was right and just,” which, she said, she expressed in “rebellion against certain issues,” especially the mistreatment of blacks during slavery.”
She said Dean Mogulescu “was one of those people who made me feel good about my rebellion, but he said you have to structure your rebellion, like in protests. That was fantastic. I found I could do it right. Rebellion didn’t have to be disruptive; rebellion could be conveyed in education. He made me feel what I was doing was important; that it was okay for me to express how I feel about the whole culture itself. I love him dearly.”
She added that ultimately the other sixth-grade students also realized, “he was down-to-earth. He was cool. Mr. Mogulescu was one of us, so he could get us to do things like homework. It seemed like he understood what we were going through. He was very creative in the way he communicated with us. As time went by, he was able to convey a way of learning that made us want to learn. It was like, damn, you can’t run him out of here, he’s good for us.”
Graduate school wasn’t without challenges for Palmer. She became ill and passed out in class, discovered she had diabetes, and at one point was hospitalized just as a paper was due. “I finished that paper,” she says. Throughout graduate school both Mariette and Mogulescu encouraged her to keep going. At the master’s graduation ceremony, Mogulescu spoke about Palmer.
And then he gave her a present. He returned the poem she had written about Langston Hughes in sixth grade. “There was something about the poem that I thought was meaningful,” he says. “Her life has been a struggle, and she discovered herself and did very well.