Thursday, December 21, 2006


I know I'm on something of a tangent, writing about movies, but some of you who found my detour into Civil War history a huge self-indulgence, may be relieved to come back to good ole right-wing sexual politics in post-9/11 America, as witnessed in an amazing recent documentary film, "The Education of Shelby Knox."

The film is set in Lubbock, Texas, the nearest city of any size to where I grew up at least a century ago. Lubbock, where no one ever tells their children about sex but where the teen pregnancy rate and the teen STD rate is among the highest in the nation, is as familiar to me as an old glove. I know these people and their attitudes. I know that they've dealt with change very slowly, and, by the way, ineptly. (It's a mere coincidence that the young George W. Bush's first foray into electoral politics was a losing campaign to represent this district in the U.S. Congress. He first learned how to seem conservative in and around Lubbock.)

The Lubbock of 2003 and 2004 is no different from the Lubbock of 1960. Nothing much has changed, and ignorance can still kill you.

When I was in high school, there was no sex education, only sexual abstinence, preached relentlessly by every parent and in every pulpit. 'Course, sexual abstinence was a total mirage and a confounded lie. Oh, some of us were abstinent to be sure, the backward ones, the unpopular geeks and bookworms. But not the popular girls and boys, the cheerleaders, the football and basketball stars. They were having plenty of sex. At least that's what they told the rest of us.

Teen pregnancy was a constant in school. The youngest girl I have memory of was 14 when she got knocked up and got hustled out of sight. In that day, if you got pregnant, you got kicked out of school. Many girls disappeared mysteriously from our ranks.

Oh, but didn't the boys talk! They bragged about themselves, naturally. But more importantly they told stories of the wild girls who could be had, like Mozelle, who supposedly took on the entire football team one night in a wheat field. That was true fame in our little world, and us male virgins looked on that girl as a kind of gorgon. We wanted her but dared not meet her gaze. She might turn us to stone.

Then something almost happened. A renegade science teacher in my freshman year of high school, noting the raging brush fire of hormones around him, decided it was time we actually learned some facts, so he read aloud to us (in a totally uninflected monotone and without looking in our general direction) from a sex education manual, stuff like this: "The clitoris is a small bud-like formation located where the top of the inner vaginal lips meet. It usually conceals itself under a small hood of skin, but when sexually aroused, it expands and emerges like a polyp or tab."

Were we embarrassed" Certainly, the virgins were. I turned a hot crimson and sunk so low in the seat, by butt was hanging unsupported over hard oak. Nobody could look anybody else in the eye. 'Course, some of the guys and girls were giggling furiously, 'cause they knew all about this stuff. Or thought they did.

The "science lesson" did not change one blessed thing. He read the manual to us, and then it was over. And we went right on with the ineffable trajectories of our lives as ignorant little sons and daughters of the soil. The mythology continued to be passed by word of mouth ... like, it's impossible to get someone pregnant the first time, and better know the magic properties of the "hot Coke douche," and masturbation will make you go blind.

Oh, we were flattered in our ignorance by the swaggering of the most knowledgeable among us, who rated girls by the ease of their seduction at the local drive-in.

So I know a great deal about Lubbock, Texas, and am both amazed and chagrined that not one thing has changed in going-on 50 years. Singer/songwriter Butch Hancock of The Flatlanders Band summed it all up: "Life in Lubbock, Texas taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you're going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love." That statement is the epigraph used on screen at the beginning of "The Education of Shelby Knox." (And you can savor the multiple ironies of that on your own time.)

Lubbock High School is still under the thumb of organized religion, which evidently equates ignorance with righteousness. The school system allows an evangelical pastor, Rev. Ed Ainsworth, free access to preach "abstinence only." One 17-year-old girl recognizes the utter dumb sameness of the failure to deal honestly with teen sex and decides to do something about it. She leads a (doomed) crusade to get sex-ed into school.

But get this: Shelby Knox is a born-again Christian, with loving conservative Republican parents, who believes in "God, family, country, in that order," who goes through a "celibacy ceremony" organized by the Rev. Ainsworth in which she promises herself and her parents that she will refrain from sexual activity until she is married. She also has the good sense to see that when teenagers break the abstinence pledge, which, gosh, they do, they have no information whatsoever to protect themselves, because information has been ruled immoral by the church and by the church's patsies, the school system.

Seeing Shelby Knox wrestle, sometimes naively, with the local power structure, especially a school board led by a man we later discover is having a torrid affair with an employee, is riveting. The heart and soul of the film is Shelby's touching relationship with her parents, especially her dad, who would do anything to make this all go away but who stands with his daughter at public meetings because he feels he must support her. And her mom, who ends up marching with Shelby in a gay-rights protest against homophobia.

One of Shelby's gay friends says to her (and this is the best line in the movie), "If there were more Christians like you, we'd be in heaven."

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