Monday, February 21, 2005

Welcome to the World, Shelby Knox

Here’s a brave kid.

Shelby Knox is tired. The 18-year-old Lubbock native just got into Park City, Utah, for the world premiere of the documentary The Education of Shelby Knox at the Sundance Film Festival. The interviews are piling up, and the sleep deprivation has her seeking a catnap in her publicist’s suite.

But she should be able to handle the grind ahead. Her personal journey of the last few years, chronicled in Education, has steeled her for almost anything.

Just three years ago, she was a sophomore and conservative Southern Baptist at Lubbock’s Coronado High School in Texas, in a district with a strict abstinence-only sex education policy. Now she’s a self-described liberal Christian who underwent a baptism of fire by becoming an advocate for comprehensive sex ed in her hometown.

“I was 15, and in my high school I could see it was an issue that was affecting my contemporaries,” says Knox, now a first-year sophomore political science major at the University of Texas in Austin.


The Education of Shelby Knox chronicles a teenager’s path to adulthood, consciousness and political awakening. It’s the story of a family that remains very close and mutually supportive despite vast political and ideological differences. Most of all, it’s a story about becoming your own person, even when that means going against everything you’ve been taught. Or, in this case, everything you weren’t taught.

Education, which will kick off the new season of the PBS documentary series POV on June 21, begins with a series of bracing facts. Lubbock has one of the highest teen-pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates in the nation. Teenage gonorrhea rates are twice the national average.

“Lubbock is known for three things,” says Knox. “Buddy Holly, the Dixie Chicks and STDs.”


So how did a nice Southern Baptist girl turn into a sex-ed crusader?

“As I came to see the world outside of Lubbock, I realized that my beliefs were more liberal than my parents’,” she says. “I didn’t make these decisions because I wanted to be the opposite of my parents. I made them because I read about the issues and figured out which side I wanted to be on.”

Knox is still onboard with abstinence. “Kids must be taught that to be completely safe from STDs and teen pregnancy, the only way to do that is to abstain,” she says. “However, kids know they can make that decision, and they need to make informed decisions. If they are going to have sex, they need to know the consequences. And they need to know how to protect themselves.”

That’s not how the Lubbock Independent School District sees it. It receives federal funding for its abstinence-only program, which has been in effect since 1995, and school officials would like to see the money continue to flow.

But the abstinence-only policy is not about cash. As depicted in the film, Lubbock is a proudly conservative and Christian city, with many residents and public officials who equate sex education with sexual provocation. The party line is that sex should be saved for marriage. Judging by the STD and pregnancy figures, that doesn’t seem to be happening. The abstinence-only policy remains in place.


Knox is aware that her political beliefs have taken a sharp left turn from her family. She admits to guilt pangs.

“I think they might feel like they did something wrong,” she says. “I feel bad, because in all ways it points to, I should have been a Republican. But my parents are so proud of me, and I love them for that . . . .”

Knox’s father, Danny, agrees with his daughter that comprehensive sex education would be beneficial for Lubbock. A conservative Republican, he’s not quite as comfortable with some of Shelby’s other causes. In the film, he bristles a bit when Shelby teams up with student activists to support gay rights. To his credit, he offers her love and support.

Isn’t it amazing how just plain old ordinary Real Life, not Hollywood or the “homosexual agenda,” is the most coersive form of teaching kids the truth?