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 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. She has her eyes set on Georgetown law school, is interested in getting into politics and says she’d love to live in New York.
"The people around me were getting sexually transmitted diseases," she says. "Young girls were getting pregnant. I heard all the myths about the different ways you can get pregnant, and I realized that was no education."
She was also called a baby killer when she volunteered for Planned Parenthood. "These protesters thought I was going to abort my child or something," she recalls. "I’ve never had sex, but they thought I was going to abort my child."
Many people told her she was going to hell. She went through the difficult, soul-searching process of questioning her beliefs. But she’s not merely still standing. She’s thriving.
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 doc 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." (There’s also Texas Tech, but you get her drift.)
This reputation is what got Knox interested in the sex education issue, first as a member of the Lubbock Youth Council, which works with city government, and then on her own. It’s also what drew the attention of New York-based filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, who were looking for a sex education story for their next film. They didn’t go to Lubbock looking for Shelby, but once they found her, they knew they had an ideal protagonist.
"She’s outspoken, and she’s a terrific public speaker," says Lipschutz. "She’s really dedicated to the issue that we were working on. She was a conservative Southern Baptist who had pledged abstinence until marriage, and she was involved in a fight for comprehensive sex ed, which is generally perceived as a liberal cause."
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. The district receives federal funding for it’s 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.
On a personal level, the sex-ed issue is just one sign of Knox’s political transformation. She’s straight, and she strongly supports gay rights, a stance that hastened her resignation from the Youth Council when she felt the organization wasn’t reaching out to gay students. Her favorite course at UT is called "Women, Gender and Politics." She writes for a collegiate feminist magazine called The F Word. Her parents say she has always rooted for the underdog, and she can’t deny it.
And she remains a proud Christian.
"Christians in general are not like what the religious right portrays," she says. "That is just a very vocal side of it. I believe most Christians are loving, caring and tolerant. They believe in civil liberties and civil rights. It’s very sad and detrimental to the Christian faith that some people have decided to use it for political advantage.
"I accept everyone. I don’t think there’s one right answer."
© 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.