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Cover Story

Mr. Barracuda

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had a freshman comp teacher once who was as charming as a smashed fingernail. The class called him Mr. Barracuda.

I bring up Mr. Barracuda because, in spite of myself, he taught me something once. He gave our class an assignment that went something like this: “In a 10-page research paper write about some phase of Adventist history.”

I wandered into the library the next day and began digging. You’ve been through this, I’m sure. Stacks of dusty books all around you. A paragraph here; a chapter there; three pages of material so perfect you’re tempted to copy it down word for word, but you know you’ll get caught.

I really worked hard on that paper. For once I went at it the way the textbooks tell you to: bibliography cards, note cards, outline—the whole dreadful process. I was even ready two days early. Other guys stayed up half the night before it was due, typing their fingers into knots. I just lay on my bed and listened to my stereo headphones. It nearly drove them crazy.


Deed done!

At 8:30 the next morning I turned in my paper with calm assurance. 

And then it happened. Mr. Barracuda leafed leisurely through the papers we’d turned in. We sat expectantly as he looked at the first and last page of each one. He carefully penciled a large red check mark in the upper right corner of each paper. Then he passed the papers directly back to their owners.

“What I want you to do by Friday,” he said, “is read your papers over again, revise them, and reduce them to not more than eight pages.”

“You haven’t even read them yet,” someone had the courage to say.

“It doesn’t matter whether I’ve read them or not,” Mr. Barracuda said. “Any paper will benefit from trimming out about 20 percent of the fat. Try it. You’ll see what I mean.”

“If you wanted eight pages,” I muttered, “why didn’t you just assign that many in the first place?”

Mr. Barracuda answered nothing; his withering glance was eloquence enough.

I stalked back to my dormitory room and threw the paper on the bed. “I’m not going to change a thing,” I announced. “Every sentence, every syllable, is essential!”

But Thursday night I got cold feet. I needed a good grade on that paper and couldn’t afford not to revise it. I began very tentatively at first—a word or a phrase here and there. But as I read the paper through again and again, I began to find whole sentences that the paper didn’t really need. When it was all finished, I’d removed two and a half pages of deadwood. And I had to admit that the paper read better—much better.


Let it go

Since that time I’ve come to realize that life is like that term paper. The lives of Christians actually get along better without some of the things that many consider essential. Life doesn’t have to be as complicated as we sometimes think.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

The teachings of Jesus bear this out as well. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” He said, “where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19).

I’m not suggesting here that a Christian must don a hair shirt and live in the wilderness—even if he could find one in this modern world. But most Christians would benefit if they examined themselves and culled the useless or destructive wordiness from the pages of their lives.  


This article originally appeared in the January 12, 1982, issue of Insight. At that time Gary B. Swanson was an associate textbook editor for the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He has also served nine years as an academy teacher of English and journalism, eight years as editor of Listen magazine, 15 years as editor of Collegiate Quarterly and Cornerstone Connections, and 10 years as associate director of the GC Sabbath School and Personal Ministries departments. He retired in 2015 in Silver Spring, Maryland, but continues to write. 

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