In the opening pages of the new graphic novel Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey, we see Hercules-based teacher Adam Bessie talking to his students about E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops. The 1909 sci-fi classic is about a distant future in which humans live underground, each in isolated cells, communicating only through screens connected by a single machine. The date of Bessie’s class is Feb. 15, 2020, and he is teaching English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill. No one in the room knows just how prophetic Forster’s story is about to become.
An East Bay Teacher Shares His Pandemic Experience in a Compelling New Graphic Novel
Bessie and illustrator Peter Glanting’s book documents the very recent past — one that each and every one of us just lived through — but Bessie’s perspective is particularly valuable. First, he is immunocompromised. He has been living with brain cancer for over a decade and his health hangs in the balance. Second, he is a teacher: a profession that was forced to adapt overnight to entirely new methods, and then expected to venture back into the world before most. Third, Bessie is a community college teacher specifically dedicated to working with financially challenged students.
The devastation and frustration Bessie feels to lose pupils because of the technological requirements of remote learning is palpable throughout Going Remote.
Bessie’s classroom, as depicted in the book, is lively, his students are engaged and jovial, and he’s the kind of teacher who moves chairs into circles every week. When he does this, he explains here, “There is an invisible force, an electrical current that flows through the room — through not just voices, but facial expressions, body language. An infectious energy.” The circles and group discussions in his classroom, Bessie writes, transform the space from “a random collection of students” into a real “community.” It’s clear that in the pandemic Bessie didn’t just lose a physical space, he lost the very thing that made him love his job the most.
Bessie’s devastation to be separated from his students is conveyed effectively in his own words and by Glanting’s engaging black-and-white illustrations. When it comes to presenting group settings, Glanting pans out, depicting lively, bustling scenes from an admiring, far-off vantage point. Bessie’s busy classroom is viewed from above; the pre-pandemic Diablo Valley College campus is presented from a bird’s-eye perspective. In the scenes after shelter in place starts, Glanting’s panels are close, cropped, smaller. There are boxes of black, muted screens. The illustrations viscerally convey the claustrophobia and isolation we all experienced throughout most of 2020 and 2021. Heightening those elements are Bessie and Glanting’s frequent embrace of dystopic sci-fi imagery.
In Going Remote, Bessie and Glanting also capture the strangeness of a home life where each family member is forced into separate corners for different Zoom calls. Bessie touches on the mental health crisis that snuck into his work as students struggled at home. He also presents scenes from the racial reckoning of summer 2020, taking his young son to a Black Lives Matter demonstration in downtown Oakland. Two full pages of the graphic novel are dedicated to simply listing the hundreds of names of Black Americans, including George Floyd, who have died in racist killings in recent American history.
Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey is ultimately at its best when Bessie is sharing his views and feelings about public education and the power of community. This book might only be a chronicle of one teacher’s attempts to keep his class together during the COVID pandemic, but it clearly reflects the experiences of thousands and thousands of other teachers waging similar battles across the country, and around the globe.
In examining the circumstances that separated us in the first place, Bessie indirectly makes a case for communities to come back together in more literal and robust ways. Through his and Glanting’s eyes, that feels as urgent now as staying home did in 2020.