Eric Heyl Of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Just Wrote The Worst Column I’ve Ever Read » VSB

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Eric Heyl Of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Just Wrote The Worst Column I’ve Ever Read

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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.

From “Penn Hills, Woodland Hills won’t take Wilkinsburg students”

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.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • laddibugg

    The ENTIRE student body of the high school consists of only 172 students?! That’s pretty small–I wonder if that is part of the issue. It’s a small number, which can be a blessing and a curse—more of a curse when it comes to public schools since they have to take everyone.

    This article, though–he’d probably stand by it being an opinion piece, and that it doesn’t have to stand up to the standards of ‘front page’ journalism.

    • Damon Young

      “The ENTIRE student body of the high school consists of only 172 students?!”

      I actually think that number might be high. Wilkinsburg has had a lot of troubles — which makes making fun of them even worse.

      • Sigma_Since 93

        Lots of parents who have means send their kids to private school. I’ve got a former co-worker who stays in Churchill and his side of the street the kids are assigned to Wilkinsburg and the other side of the street the kids goto Woodland Hills.

  • Epsilonicus

    I cannot believe they allowed him to publish this. I wonder if an editor read this

    • Sigma_Since 93

      You are now counting on sympathetic White people to cause a fuss. Otherwise there won’t be a retraction.

    • AlwaysCC

      i’m sure an editor did read it. even if s/he didn’t agree with it, controversy gets reads/page hits. people start emailing the article to other people, posting it on facebook, tweeting about it…

      • Val

        You’re right and it’s mainly social media’s fault.

      • INDYOO7

        Hey I’m not surprised. He was just doing what white guys do. He was being a bigoted, judgmental pr!ck. If this white man was to have a scientific name it would Smugus Jerkus

        • PunchDrunkLove

          My sentiments exactly. when I read the article, I thought “typical, it’s what racists do.”

          I’m not knocking getting the word out, but there’s a disservice getting wrapped too tight in deepseated ways folks are set in. We don’t have time to get caught on every incident and what not…cause frankly (my mantra), you ain’t gon stop folks in their feelings about blacks. It is what it is. I don’t feel better to not hear and see this kind of thing. I’d rather know….so I can know what I’m dealing with. The worst kind of racist is the kind that pretends otherwise…..like those idiots chanting the N word on the bus. Guarantee they’ve been sitting around with blacks pretending to be all in. Get on with that mess.

          • ??? ??????

            Racism….wow, can’t be more original than that name calling. Morons.

            • PunchDrunkLove

              TROLLING MUCH?

              Troll on…..lol

              • ??? ??????

                Typical name calling when you’re unable to stand on facts and truth. Thanks

                • PunchDrunkLove

                  Name calling? I believe you said “morons.” Calling a racist racist versus calling people who won’t agree with you morons, is moronic at best. I guess with you trolling posts to refute an individual’s freedom to state their opinion, all in the name of hearing/reading “how smart I am” is coming from a good place huh?

                  Troll on…lol

          • INDYOO7

            You are preaching to the choir.

    • slavicdiva

      It’s abysmal – and it’s also the Trib-Review, AKA Richard Mellon Scaife’s vanity newspaper. It’s been losing money for years, but Scaife fancied himself the next Rupert Murdoch. Or something.

    • INDYOO7

      Typical!

    • jolly

      I’m not surprised. This is Pittsburgh we are talking about. In my experience as a New Yorker in The burgh I was struck by how many racist thoughts and sentiments like this are cultivated and allowed to flourish freely( and even genuinely and ignorantly felt, made me forever weary and quite honestly more scared of small town white folk than any small town black child) and often go unchecked so I’m profoundly happy you wrote this Damon. I used to get my wash and sets in Wilkinsburg so also shout out to House of Styles on Wood.

  • Smh, am I the only one getting the Hitler vibe?

    • He could pass for Dolfy after Ypres before he went full-on bat ish.

    • Charlisia Nwachukwu

      haha when I saw his picture I immediately thought he would play a great slave owner .. in 12 years a slave 2. He has that perfect sick, slimy …” the only way I feel tall is a for you to get on your knees” look.

    • Plus his last name. I don’t know how it’s *actually* pronounced, but I’m going with “heil” because why not.

  • Sigma_Since 93

    Wilkinsburg needs:

    A) Joe Clark to come out of retirement
    B.1) The gentrification that’s happening in East Liberty to continue down Liberty
    C) Those buppies to send their kids to Wilkinsburgh High
    D) They raise holy h311; officials respond when White folks complain

    • Damon Young

      “1) The gentrification that’s happening in East Liberty to continue down Liberty”

      you mean down penn, right?

      • Sigma_Since 93

        Yes. You know I’m not originally from there here parts mayne! I’ll chuck Wilkinsburg up the deuces as I catch the P67 home.

  • h.h.h.

    i didn’t see 1) until you shouted it. but then again…i guess ‘roughhousing’ is a code word?

    and a 47% rate on 172 students? or is that 47% for the entire school district?

    i dunno, seems like this was a bad attempt at satire with someone who has insider knowledge on one SD trying to give $$ to other SDs to take their students. but…i don’t know the entire story like you and other pittsburgh folks do, so i appreciate the context you added.

    • Damon Young

      i think that number is just for the high school.

  • Christopher D Bradford

    But the comments though…are for once, legitimately, excellent.

    • Damon Young

      that was a surprise

  • Asiyah

    “Journalism” and “Comedy” are oversaturated nowadays (not to mention “Cosmetology” and “Modeling”). Everybody swears they’re a journalist or a comedian. Some swear they’re both. I can’t take those fields seriously anymore.

    • Val

      Great comment. So true.

    • Damon Young

      in heyl’s defense, from what i gather he’s a columnist, not a journalist. that distinction is necessary.

    • uniquebeauty79

      Instagram had turned EVERYONE into a model now.

  • Charlisia Nwachukwu

    well … this may seem inappropriate but .. I am having a hard time mustering up the outrage. Maybe I am jaded by all the dead unarmed black men lately…

    I do agree that the article was really bad… *shrug .. nervous smile … exits the room slowly*

    • Val

      Or a cop who killed a Black man who was charged charged and then being allowed to leave the country for a vacation. WTF.

    • Damon Young

      it’s all connected. the mindset that would allow someone to write this is a “safe” version of the mindset resulting in dead unarmed black men.

      • Amber

        Yes it’s all connected. I hope people don’t get tired of these types of stories. This man’s ridiculous article notwithstanding, I’m more concerned about kids’ education and hope that more educated black folks take time to volunteer and tutor these kids to get them to where they should be.

  • menajeanmaehightower

    I’m fine with calling administrators to task. Once you start attacking kids, you need to have several seats. This is a harmful piece and one filled with hatred, contempt, and bigotry. The editor should be ashamed for pushing it through and the author should go work for fox news. If we can’t be compassionate to children, then we’ve all lost.

    • Damon Young

      knowing the trib, his editors probably encouraged it

  • menajeanmaehightower

    Also, 172 students for a high school near a city (or in one) seems dumb financially. It’s a waste of money actually. How has the school been allowed to stay open for so long?

    • Sigma_Since 93

      That’s been part of the problem period for a school district where there are almost as many empty houses are people. The city has outsourced everything except for the police department to stop the fiscal bleeding.

      • AlwaysCC

        i was about to ask how they had their own district anyway. but you answered that…

      • menajeanmaehightower

        How far away is the nearest high school? The students should get bussed their immediately. Or you can divide the students up and send half to one school and half to another.

        • Sigma_Since 93

          That’s rub with the article; there are three school districts that are close and 2 of the 3 said no thanks. Eric Heyl did a poor job in the article by mocking the situation. Without the sarcasm, you know it’s bad when you reject an option to fix a fiscal shortfall your school district has by simply accepting a few students.

          • menajeanmaehightower

            School districts are run by the school boards but can’t the county step in?

          • Damon Young

            if you count gateway (monroeville) that’s actually four. and that happens to be one of the richest districts in the state

            • Sigma_Since 93

              I didn’t count Gateway but I should have. My boys are in the district and I know they would pass as well and we have a shortage too. Praying my taxes don’t go up.

      • ??? ??????

        40 years of failed liberal-democrat policies have come home to roost

        • Sigma_Since 93

          Cheap import steel causing jobs to shutter has nothing to do with a liberal agenda….that was all corporate greed and greed knows no political affiliation.

          • ??? ??????

            Actually, the government/union monopoly is incapable to respond to the market that changed. They are using methods that are a failure. We need a resilient market-driven solution that can respond to the realities, not wishful thinking.

            • Sigma_Since 93

              I love a free market system but the free market does not police itself sufficiently. We live in the ‘Burgh and know the history (I learned since I’m not a native) of the working conditions and the wages that Frick and Carnegie paid employees. I’m hoping that’s what you are not suggesting we go back to.

              • ??? ??????

                Actually the market self-polices by supply and demand. Right now we have a MONOPOLY in public education. How is that better?

                • Sigma_Since 93

                  No better but Geoffery Canada’s school doesn’t fully use all of the capitalistic tools. Steve Perry’s school doesn’t fully use all of the capitalistic tools. The market is about profit pure and simple. The question would be who is the school beholden to….the students or the investors.

                  • ??? ??????

                    So. If a school doesn’t provide a product of value, it will fail. If it provides a product of value, it will succeed. Its better than monopoly, which is what we have now. How can you defend Monopoly?

                    • Sigma_Since 93

                      I’m not defending a monopoly; I’m making the point that I can’t think of any example where free enterprise looked out for the interests of the people at the expense of profits. You say with $20K / student you could educate the children. I’m wary of the person who says I can do it for $12 and the $8 becomes profit. A true free market place would do this and my concern is that it would be at the expense of the children. The monopoly isn’t any better but in some schools I can see the monies being spent in capital improvements but I also see waste. The economist in me struggles with this.

                      The true academic free marketplace is private schools.

                    • ??? ??????

                      The free enterprise system is designed to make profit and put a product in the hand of a buyer. Theres nothing wrong with profit if the product is good, or great. Right now there is a monopoly of failure. No amount of money can fix it even though the largest tax burden on people is schools….and they still can’t get it right. Union Greed. Government Bureaucratic Inefficiency. Laws that protect the incompetent. Even if a nonprofit group wanted to run a school they can’t get past the unions or the board of education.

                      Vouchers give the power to the parents. Spend it in private, parochial, public, nonprofit or for-profit, it doesn’t matter to me. Parents are better equipped to make the decisions. Market forces play in their favor. Schools that don’t provide a good product will fail, schools that excel will profit. I’m OK with that.

    • That’s a problem a lot or rural schools are having in SC the single A schools are small as heck now but because of location they have to stay open.

      • menajeanmaehightower

        True but those small schools are in small towns. Usually. And busing them would be sending them miles. I would assume as much. I’m thinking about Dillon County as an example.

        • Small school population is just a bad sign for any school district. It’s bad in a small town but like you said 172 in a major city is kind of baffling.

          • Sigma_Since 93

            It’s not a major city.

            • menajeanmaehightower

              The school isn’t in a major city or Pittsburgh isn’t a major city?

              • Sigma_Since 93

                It’s a suburb of Pittsburgh. Think of it as the communities outside of Columbia that are separate municipalities.

            • Well sizable city.

              • Sigma_Since 93

                see my response to Meanajean. The best Wilkinsburg could hope for is to be folded into the city of Pittsburgh

          • menajeanmaehightower

            That’s very true. It’s a financial waste no matter how you look at it but to me small town = small school size and one would hope that small school size is representative of the size of the actual school. But Pittsburgh? That seems completely off.

    • Val

      A lot of the time race is the issue. Other, mostly White districts, don’t want to absorb Black students into their schools.

      • Damon Young

        in this situation, the other districts are mostly black as well. wilkinsburg, though, is the cousin no one wants to claim.

        • Does the district have a lot of debt? That would be the one argument against absorbing them. Otherwise, I’d move on.

    • Damon Young

      it — like many other schools in the area — is in a community that has suffered a pronounced loss of population. as far as why it’s still open, i have no idea.

      • You’d think the Commonwealth would have made this decision years ago. Then again, being a former NJ resident, dumb ish regarding schools is Tuesday in my world.

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