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      The Education of Shelby Knox
    The school of hard Knox

    "The Education of Shelby Knox" documents one high-school girl's courageous stand in favor of honest sex education within the culture of denial that is modern-day Texas.


    "Sex," says pastor Ed Ainsworth, "is what two dogs do on the street corner."

    "They just bump and grind awhile, boom boom boom boom boom, and then they go their separate ways," the man known as "Sex Ed" instructs a group of Texas adolescents. "But how many of you know, in your junior high, in your high school, at your college, there are some young people that are acting like dogs and just having sex? Don't you dare be one of them. If you are, you will get hurt — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and financially."

    Directed by: Marion Lipschutz, Rose Rosenblatt.
    Featuring: Shelby Knox.

    Related links: Official site
    Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2005
    • The Education of Shelby Knox
    Welcome to abstinence-only sex education, the only kind permitted as a matter of official policy in Lubbock, Texas. There is, of course, another kind of sex ed practiced in the hormone-paved parking lot that serves as the local high school hangout. Teen sex is the primary form of entertainment for high-schoolers in Lubbock — an estimated 60 percent of the students are sexually active. "There's nothing else to do around here," one girl comments. The strip-mall parking lot is what is derided in places like the current White House as the "reality-based community."

    Shelby Knox is a high school junior bouncing between two worlds — the world of her devout Christian faith and the world where real issues need to be discussed honestly. In more enlightened parts of the country, these are the same thing — the "Christian" thing to do is to educate people and save lives — but not in politically correct Texas. And Shelby is doing her best to give her parents' program a fair shake. We see her take an "abstinence pledge" in a ceremony that involves one psychologically bizarre twist — her parents slide a wedding ring onto their little girl's finger.

      The Education of Shelby Knox
    I mean, hang on a second. Isn't that kind of sick? Mom and dad and their little girl in a three-way "marriage"?

    The parents and the carnally obsessed pastor Ainsworth would undoubtedly plead that this is just some kind of symbolism, but it's symbolism gone mad. Shelby, like the other kids, promises a lifetime of faithfulness to her husband, but the weird thing — you'd notice it right away — is that there's no husband in the picture. ("My husband, whom I haven't met yet," is how she solemnly refers to this Imaginary Friend.) The only actual people present are Mom and Dad, so she does the ring thing with them instead. Either this is a colossal, church-sanctioned perversion, or it's just a collective charade. In fact, why can't it be both?

    Let's think about this for a second. What's the motivation for this twisted ritual? It's the basic fear of adolescent sexuality. And who is experiencing this fear? Oddly, it's not the kids. Shelby Knox herself is quite level-headed about the whole subject of sexuality, and a lot of her less chaste schoolmates are busy living it up. Either way, they're not the ones who are freaking out. The people who are freaking out are the parents.

    The parents' see their little girl growing into a woman and it scares the bejeezus out of them, but they lack the ability to talk with her in a realistic way about how to cope with adolescence. Their limited mental framework offers only one panicky response to teen sexuality: "DON'T!" (In fact, nearly all the Knoxes' attempts at dialogue with their strong-willed daughter end in some kind of a "shut up" moment, some unthinking conversation-ender like "What's our priorities? God, family, country, in that order!") And lacking any other framework for thinking about sexuality, they come back to the only control mechanism they know — marriage. Their daughter is too young for marriage, even in Texas, but if they can just get a ring around her finger, well, then everyone can pretend she has passed directly from the safety of childhood to the safety of marriage without any big, scary, out-of-control adolescence to deal with in-between. The parents, craving false reassurance, can pretend to be reassured. Shelby, hypothetically "married," can remain hypothetically a virgin.

    Who is experiencing this fear of adolescent sexuality? Oddly, it's not the kids who are freaking out. The people who are freaking out are the parents.  

    All of the Knoxes' parental hysteria is built on one assumption about their daughter — that she's a helpless mental infant, no more capable of handling raging adolescence than a baby is capable of changing its own diapers. But they sell Shelby short.

    Shelby Knox, besides being a strong believer in God, is also a strong believer in honest sex education — and not the kind practiced by Texas preachers and school boards. She's a leader in the Lubbock Youth Commission, whose activities include support of sex ed in school.

    What would Jesus teach, you might ask yourself if you lived in Lubbock. And if you're in the pro-ignorance majority, your answer is that He would want us to spread fear through lies. The school board claims it can't teach condom use because condoms have a 14 percent failure rate. Preacher Ed warns kids that they can get sexually transmitted diseases just by shaking hands. One student debating the issue spouts authoritative-sounding baloney, such as this news flash: "I do know ... there's an increased chance of contracting diseases and that most homosexuals die by the age of 40, simply because it is a dangerous lifestyle."

    (This has a certain Texas logic, if you think about it, because who hasn't shaken thousands of condom-free, disease-propagating hands by age 40? Why, that is a dangerous lifestyle!)

    As the film nears its conclusion, the Board of Education (gathered "in Jesus's name") is pondering whether to cut off the Youth Council's funds for attempting to teach what Jesus wouldn't teach. Through it all, Shelby has differed with her group, her parents, and the authorities with good ideas, good faith and good humor. She's an impressive character at just 15 — grappling with the usual issues of adolescence and acceptance, but still not backing down in the face of a culture that largely doesn't want to hear what she has to say. The impressive thing is not just that she's in the right — it's that she has the courage to maintain a loud, clear voice of honesty in the kingdom of hypocrisy.

    As Shelby tells a radio host after one contentious interview: "I'm kinda scary to tangle with. Sorry."

    JUNE 14, 2005

    Reader comments on The Education of Shelby Knox:

  • impressive   from elisa, Mar 29, 2006

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