Comical Grace

At the newspaper where I work, we proofread the comics.

We look at the dates to make sure the right strip is running on the right day. Primarily, we apply the “breakfast test.” There are some words we don’t allow in the paper unless they are in a direct quote (and a cartoon strip character’s dialogue doesn’t count). Some forms of humor are too juvenile and scatological for us to serve, especially over eggs and bacon.

So in the new-year curating of the gallery on my refrigerator door, one item being retired is a comic strip that reminds me of a colossal fail—and epic grace.

An occupational hazard of proofreading comics is that it’s possible to get caught up in the story and miss what we’re supposed to be looking for. (I confess this is especially risky with Doonesbury.) Practically, this clipping functioned as a visual “humble thyself” reminder of a day I failed to do my job, because it ran with one of those no-no words. Primarily, it bestows a memory of grace.

In this case, it came from the executive editor in the corner office. Rather than doing what he usually does when someone has messed up, which is call a supervisor to his office (what my immediate supervisor calls The Long Walk of Shame) and talk to that person about the mistake and have that person talk to the offending employee, he called me in his office. (He does call rank and file people to his office sometimes but only for good news, another coworker assured me the first time I was summoned there.)

He showed me the comic. There in black and white was perhaps our most forbidden forbidden word: vomit. It had slipped by me in a list of gross things some characters were planning for a Halloween haunted house. Once your defenses have been lowered by a mention of grapes for eyeballs and spaghetti for guts, then pea soup for fake vomit just doesn’t stand out.

He said he knew how vigilant I was over the comics and that he hoped I wasn’t the one who had missed this . . .

. . . Well, I was. And I had marked my initials on the proof, so if he had asked for that page, he had proof that it was me. I confessed and said, “I hang my head in shame.”

He did a remarkable thing. He reminded me that, while we might not personally agree with a particular in-house style rule, it is still our job to enforce it. And he did not mention it to the two layers of supervision between him and me.

There are many ways this man led by example, some clear to everyone in the newsroom with eyes to see, some known only to himself and whoever sat across the desk from him in a given moment. For me, it was a palpable sense of what it means to be forgiven and told,  “Go and sin no more.” That was grace, the kind that made me grateful to be treated with care I did not deserve, and that only made me more determined to do my job well, which is to say obediently and with joy.