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P.O.V. kicks off its season with a West Texas tale of reproductive revival

Ignorance might be bliss, but after bliss comes morning sickness. What the teenagers of Texas don't know can hurt them, in the form of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Because of a law signed by Governor George W. Bush in 1995, public schools in the state teach nothing about sex except abstinence. In Lubbock, the curriculum is so effective that one out of 14 teenage girls gets pregnant every year. Do "family values" mean putting youngsters in a family way?

A documentary about a former Lubbock high-school student (Shelby Knox, foreground) who becomes an unlikely advocate for fact-based sex education kicks off the 18th season of the acclaimed PBS series P.O.V. at 10 p.m. Tuesday, June 21 on KLRN.

To understand the Texas take on "moral standards" that has taken hold of national policy, New York filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt spent three years in the Panhandle observing a perky high-school girl as she wrestled with questions of sexuality and public education. The result, The Education of Shelby Knox, will be broadcast on KLRN-TV on Tuesday, June 21, at 10 p.m. It is a brilliantly provocative start for the 18th season of P.O.V., the peerless weekly series of independent nonfiction films broadcast every summer on PBS.

At the outset of the film, Shelby Knox is a 15-year-old sophomore who joins the Lubbock Youth Commission, established to provide high school students a voice in civic affairs. Though she herself has taken a pledge of chastity until marriage, Shelby becomes convinced that students her age need to be taught more about sex than simply to avoid it. Along with Corey Nichols, a rival who defeats her in an election to leadership of the Youth Commission, she uses the organization to lobby for sex education in Lubbock schools. The school board, which begins its meetings with a prayer to Jesus, refuses to take Shelby's proposals seriously.

The Education of Shelby Knox

Dir. Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt
Devout Baptists and conservative Republicans, Shelby's parents are uncomfortable with their daughter's activism, especially when her advocacy of sex education is followed by defense of gay rights. "I'm sure there're Democrats, but I just don't know any," says Paula Knox, mystified by how she could have raised a liberal Democrat. Shelby might as well have been a Basque separatist, but Paula and Denny Knox end up supporting their child in her quixotic tilt against the windbags of Lubbock. A principal, unprincipled adversary is the sanctimonious superintendent of schools, who retires in disgrace when caught using school computers to try to buy sex from an employee.

One of 2.4 million teenagers who have pledged abstinence before marriage through a national program called "True Love Waits," Shelby confronts its local leader, a charismatic preacher named Ed Ainsworth, about some of her doubts. "All these people can't be going to hell," she says about the gays and lesbians she has met. But Ainsworth refuses to make any concessions. "Christianity is the most intolerant religion in the world," he boasts.

"Everybody eventually becomes their own person," says Shelby, and The Education of Shelby Knox is effective not simply as a study of a community tyrannized by the Christian Taliban. It is the coming-of-age story of a young woman taking teetering steps toward thinking for herself.

Read Susan Pagani's interview with Shelby Knox, "Not expecting," April 14-20, 2005.

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