When words like "best" or "worst" are incorporated in the titles of Things Written On The Internet, it's often more about creating an attractive headline and crafting an argument than the writer's sincere belief that whatever's being written about (i.e.: "Why Chipotle Has The Best Beef Taco Ever") is actually the "best" or "worst" thing ever. Veteran readers of Things Written On The Internet are aware of this type of hyperbole, and usually adjust their expectations accordingly.
There will be no need for such adjustment today. The title of this piece contained no hyperbole. "Neighboring districts shy away from Wilkinsburg's forbidden fruit" — from Eric Heyl of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review — is literally the worst major newspaper column I've ever read. Granted, I don't spend my days hunting for bad columns — I was only made aware of this because it was emailed to me — so Heyl's piece probably isn't the worst major newspaper column ever. It probably isn't even the worst one published today. And, judging from this piece, it's not too big of a stretch to presume Heyl has written other pieces as bad as this one. But I haven't read those other bad columns, and this is the first (and last) piece from Heyl I've read. And it is fucking awful. Here's why.
1. It's racist
Bit of background: Wilkinsburg is a predominately Black suburb on the outskirts of the city of Pittsburgh, and the Wilkinsburg School District has been one of the lowest performing and poorest districts in the state for at least a decade. Considering Wilkinsburg's size — in 2014, the high school had 172 students — and financial hardships, there's been an ongoing conversation about just absorbing it into the Pittsburgh Public School District. Heyl's piece deals with a conversation about absorbing it into either Penn Hills or Woodland Hills, two larger suburban schools.
Heyl's main premise — Penn Hills and Woodland Hills are reluctant to accept Wilkinsburg students — isn't incorrect. Penn Hills and Woodland Hills have also had their own academic and financial issues, and it's not hard to understand why they wouldn't be in favor of that merger. But instead of writing this as what it is, a sobering and unfortunate story about poverty, race, and academic achievement, Heyl presents this as a joke, using snark and sarcasm to ridicule the mostly Black and mostly poor Wilkinsburg students for being Black and poor and unwanted.
If there's an Anti-Pulitzer, the following passage should be nominated.
To counteract the misperception, you must polish that apple like students once did for teachers. Make that skin shiny by noting:
• Your students' reputation for roughhousing is undeserved.
Point out that it's been nearly three years since Wilkinsburg was named the state's most violent school district in an independent study by the Commonwealth Foundation. Note with pride that in 2013-14, there were only 10 cases of assault against district staffers.
• Your students will help provide a better educational experience for students in the absorbing district.
Wilkinsburg will bring its impressively consistent truancy rates to the new district, thus providing the opportunity for more individual instruction by unofficially keeping class sizes down.
Chronic absenteeism is so prevalent in Wilkinsburg that the nickname of the district's sports teams should be changed from “Tigers” to “Truants.” Wilkinsburg's habitual truancy rate in 2013-14 was 47.2 percent. The year before, it was 47.6 percent.
• Your students' integrity is unquestionable.
The 2013-14 Keystone Exam results for Wilkinsburg High School showed 5 percent proficiency in algebra, 6 percent proficiency in literature and no proficiency in biology. Given that the test scores are among the state's worst, Wilkinsburg students clearly aren't cheating.
See? These kids can be assets anywhere. You just need to put the shine on their collective apple.
2. It's not funny
Eric Heyl isn't the first and will not be the last terrible columnist to employ humor inappropriately. And, as a person who tried very, very hard not to laugh…but still laughed at Jeff Ross's Paul Walker jokes at the recent Justin Bieber roast, I can appreciate inappropriate humor. But with one condition: The jokes are actually good.
However, nothing Heyl says is funny. The construction — a fake email to the Wilkinsburg School District — is shitty and stupid, the analogies suck, and the "jokes" are so Fisher Price, My First Joke that I can smell the plastic.
It's so unfunny, in fact, that it seems intentional. I reread it three times just to make sure it wasn't satire or some sort of shitty White guy performance art. If he's trying to win an Anti-Pulitzer, this must have been an Anti-Humor submission.
Seriously, read this shit.
The nearby Woodland Hills School District responded to your advances as a homecoming queen might to someone in the pocket-protector crowd.
Heyl's last byline before this was from Sunday, which means he had at least two days to think of something better than this, which means that this was the best he could think of after two days. And remember this guy was paid to write this. And not in Tootsie Rolls or Doritos, but actual money you can actually, like, spend.
3. It's factually incorrect
In the piece, Heyl states that Wilkinsburg offered Penn Hills money to take their students.
Grappling with financial difficulties and declining enrollment, you recently approached the neighboring Penn Hills School District with an enticing proposition. You offered $3 million in tuition fees if Penn Hills would take 200 Wilkinsburg students in grades 7-12.
This is wrong. District officials from Wilkinsburg have already confirmed that there was no official offer of any sort of student tuition rate.
While Woodland Hills and Wilkinsburg officials did meet, Wilkinsburg acting superintendent Dan Matsook contends there was never a financial offer presented to Penn Hills. Mr. Matsook said Ms. Hines, in an email, canceled a meeting between Wilkinsburg and Penn Hills officials two days before it was scheduled, saying she told the entire board about the planned meeting and the board rejected the idea. “The [Penn Hills] board nixed the meeting before we had an opportunity to discuss anything,” Mr. Matsook said.
This might seem like a minor quibble, but when calling a bunch of kids out for being so undesirable that even a struggling district chose to pass on them, it would seem to be best to have your facts straight.Also, if you notice, there are no quotes from any officials in Heyl's piece. No superintendents, no principals, no school board members, no one. This makes it much more convenient for Heyl to construct his own narrative and not be contradicted.
4. It moves the goalposts
Dead in the middle of a piece about students, the following wet fart of a paragraph can be found.
One worm hole is the Wilkinsburg's reputation as a tough school district, a reputation not entirely undeserved when even your community-parent liaison has had trouble with the law. (You can protest all you want that Walter Wilson's 2010 simple assault conviction was a minor misdemeanor, but the woman with whom he had the altercation probably would disagree.)
What is the point, exactly, in citing the criminal history of a person employed by the district in a piece about the students? Don't bother answering, because I know. Including this helps paint a picture of the entire district being filled with criminals. As if whatever Wilson did matters. And as if a Google search wouldn't find recent news stories about crimes committed by people within both the Penn Hills and Woodland Hills school districts.
I can imagine people reading this and thinking "Damn, D. This dude kill your dog or something? What did he do to you?" My answer? Nothing…but steal money to write a lazy, shitty, aggressively unfunny, factually incorrect, and racist column about poor Black kids who have practically no control over their circumstance. Oh, and spread that message to the Tribune-Review's readership, which is in the hundreds of thousands.
So no, he didn't kill my dog.