“I’m trapped,” he said. “The school has always gone with my interests.” Upper School Art and History teacher Mark Buenzle’s false lament was his explanation for why he has been teaching at BFS for over 20 years. “We’re a good match creatively,” he concluded.
Mark started out at BFS as a kindergarten teacher, a job he held for seven years. “Then, when I began my training as a psychoanalyst, I said that I want to teach psychology and they said fine. I’ve always been trusted to use my strengths here.” He also likes Brooklyn Friends’ stress on nonconformity and its commitment to social justice. “There’s a kindness and openness here that I like.”
Today Mark teaches art history, painting, two-dimensional art, and a year long psychology course, all in the Upper School. In art history, he stresses the history as much as the art. “Art history is history, but with a different approach. I encourage the students to make their own inferences.” His goal is not to force students to memorize dates and names but to give them a working vocabulary and awareness of art. “I want them to be able to walk into a museum with the skills to discuss what they see and appreciate it.”
His painting and two-dimensional art classes always stay fresh, he says, because new students inevitably bring new talents and new projects to the class. “It gives them a chance to go where they want to go.”
But his psychology course is where students really go to new places. In addition to teaching at BFS, Buenzle has been seeing patients for four years at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies, and this helps keep him on his toes in class. “Because I see patients and I’m still taking classes myself, I always have new things to say.” Out of all of his classes, he says students are most fascinated by psychology, “especially adolescent psychology because it’s particularly meaningful to them.”
All of his classes are popular, he says with a wink, “because I’m lucky enough to teach interesting subjects. Oops, that might upset the math teachers!” Doubtless his sense of humor is another reason Mark is popular with students. Last year in art history, when he covered Dada—which was a World War I era movement based on irrationality and nihilism—he allowed one of his students to bake his paper into a cake and serve it to the class.
Clearly a man unafraid to try new things, Mark applied for, and was accepted into, an intense academic and travel program this past summer called “Continuity and Change in South Africa.” Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) the six-week institute enrolled 25 teachers from around the US, most of whom were also high school humanities teachers. Their home base for academic classes and seminars was in Capetown at the University of the Western Cape. “This university was important in the anti-apartheid movement because it admitted nonwhite students, unlike the neighboring University of Cape Town which was for whites only,” explained Mark.
As part of the program, Mark and his group traveled for four weeks through every part of the country. Their destinations included Durban (South Africa’s largest city), Johannesburg, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Game Park , the Drakensberg Mountains, the Wild Coast, and even the wine country. “We also went to the Grahamstown Arts Festival, the biggest arts festival in Africa,” he added.
Earlier in 1993 Mark had traveled with a group of artists to remote parts of Mali, West Africa, paid for in part by BFS. In 2000 he also received a Fulbright-Hays grant to travel to India, and in 2001 he won a Fulbright Memorial Grant to visit Japan. “I always return home with a broadened horizon and a determination to bring my new discoveries to the people I care about the most, many of whom are my students,” he said. “I cannot overstate the impact that these experiences have had on my development.”
Being a therapist also helps. “It lets me be therapeutic in the classroom; not to be their therapist, but to help them overcome their resistance to learning.” He is a practicing psychoanalyst-in-training. “It’s modern psychoanalysis which means we believe we can treat people who are psychotic as well as neurotic. It means we believe that even something like schizophrenia can be cured through talking.”
Mark holds an MFA from Hunter College in painting and a master’s in early childhood education from Bank Street College of Education. He was born and raised in the Garden State in a small town called Riverton on the banks of the Delaware River and moved to New York after high school to obtain a bachelor’s degree from Parsons School of Design.
After twenty-three years in New York City, Mark moved to Westchester two years ago, returning in some ways to his small town roots. “I get to hear the crickets at night.”
photos, from top: Mileage post at the Cape of Good Hope; “huts” in KwaZulu Natal; a whites-only sign in the District Six Museum in Cape Town; the Robbin Island jail where Mandela was imprisoned