The Education of Shelby Knox (IMDB) functions in part as a coming-of-age story, relating the experiences of a Lubbock, Texas, high school student and Southern Baptist who follows her conscience in advocating comprehensive sex education in the city’s public high schools despite widespread opposition from her community. And while the documentary sometimes veered into tourist mode, gawking at the locals, the film powerfully conveyed Knox’s attempts to reconcile her Christian beliefs with her growing political commitments.
The film begins with a brief overview of life in Lubbock, including the jarring information that 1 in 14 Lubbock teen girls become pregnant every year. The official policy of the city’s schools is to promote abstinence-only sex education. We are then introduced the Shelby, who at fifteen, takes a pledge to remain a virgin until marriage at a ceremony in her church. But gradually, Shebly begins to recognize the need for a more thorough sex eductaion program. She becomes involved in a city-supported youth organization where she uses the platform to promote her point of view. She goes to Planned Parenthood and participates in their sex ed program. Through the course of the film, Shelby speaks before the city council, debates her pastor, and eventually, we learn in the epilogue, chooses to pursue a career in politics.
Watching Shelby become a more powerful advocate for sex ed was pretty impressive. Given her community’s social and political conservatism (her mom comments at one point that if there any Democrats in Lubbock, she doesn’t know any of them), it would have been easy to accept the status quo or to write off any possibility of changing people’s minds. I did find myself frustrated by the film’s sometimes uncomplicated representation of the pro-abstinence position because the representative for that position, a local pastor who teaches that “true love waits,” often spoke in cliches (“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”) or in condemnation (at one point he proudly proclaims that “Christianity is an intolerant religion”), but Shelby’s conversations with the pastor illustrate the degree to which she eventually distances herself from him.
However, I was also completely fascinated by the film’s representation of Shelby’s family, especially to the degree that it complicated stereotypical images of a Baptist family. It’s made clear from the beginning of the film that her father is a conservative Republican, and Shelby’s mom generally shares those beliefs. But, even when Shelby’s campaigns are met with community disapproval, her parents are remarkably supportive, with her father acknowledging by the end of the film that comprehensive sex ed is important and her mother (somewhat ambivalently) marching in solidarity with a gay-straight alliance group that is trying to become an official, school-sanctioned club.
The storytelling in this documentary is first-rate, but what really made the film work for me was the character of Shelby Knox. I mentioned before that I was interested in the subject matter because I attended a fundamentalist church when I was a teenager, and like Shelby, I found myself struggling with many of these issues, and the film captures that experience very well (speaking of teenage fundamentalism, I’m still planning to write about Brian Flemming’s doc, The God Who Wasn’t There, at some point in the next few days, but I’m still sorting through that one).
Update: Here’s the live chat Natalie mentioned.