Most parents would probably consider Shelby Knox a dream teenager. She’s a top-drawer student who sings opera on the side while enjoying a close, loving relationship with both parents. She has no apparent interest in drugs or alcohol and is a devout member of her parents’ evangelical church. Even better from the point and view of most moms and dads: Shelby has taken a pledge of sexual abstinence prior to marriage.
No, Shelby Knox is not the latest addition to the cast of 7th Heaven, but a very real young lady. And just because she’s so well-behaved does not necessarily mean that her parents dwell in some kind of Promised Land of domestic tranquility.
No, the Knoxs dwell in the very unpromised land of Lubbock, Texas – birthplace of Buddy Holly and an alarming number of illegitimate children. In Shelby’s high school, pregnant coeds seem to be more common than A-students. So, working with the Lubbock Youth Commission, a group that is supposed to give young people a voice in local government, she champions an unlikely cause for a devout teen – overturning her local school board’s draconian “abstinence only” sex education policy.
On the counsel, she meet up with the one obstacle all activists encounter – other activists. In this case, her nemesis within the organization is Corey Nichols, the very model of a moderate-leaning GOP politician in training. Shelby instantly distrusts the suspiciously smooth Corey, fearing he is too ready to give in to the powers that be. There’s no doubt the kid already embodies the pathological slickness of most contemporary politicians. When asked about whether he plans to take up a career in politics, he refuses to answer. When pressed, he adds that it’s never good to announce a run for office prematurely.
And then there are Shelby’s ever-supportive parents. Like her, they are in favor of “comprehensive” sex education, which permits discussion of birth control and safer sex. Unlike Shelby, however, they are also otherwise fairly standard Texas-style conservative Republicans, and Daddy in particular would be just as happy if Shelby found a less controversial outlet for her energies.
When Shelby supports an attempt to install a Gay-Straight Alliance chapter on her high school campus, her parents’ ambivalence reaches new heights. And Shelby herself is struggling to reconcile the very particular version of Christianity she’s been taught – the only one she really knows about — with the fact that she actually likes and respects gay people.
If you’re one of the army of downhearted liberals still distraught over the last election and the ongoing gutlessness of most of the Democratic Party, seeing The Education of Shelby Knox is a heartening experience. It’s not a perfect documentary – at times it feels as if the subjects are performing for the cameras and not too much actually happens. But overall it’s a well-made, often extremely funny coming of age tale of a real-life progressive activist thriving right in the heart of the reddest of red states.
Now attending the University of Texas at Austin, Shelby Knox is blessed with real determination and nerve. Like all teens, she may fall prey to the occasional hormonally inspired tantrum. That will end, but the young Ms. Knox understands something that too few adults grasp: the difference between compromising to achieve a partial goal, and simply abandoning those goals entirely.
Who knows, as she grows up and, I pray, enters politics, she may help restore the traditional values of tolerance to America.
And now, Film Threat’s first-ever political endorsement – Ms. Shelby Knox for President in 2030!