Beware of those off-hand remarks you make in front of reporters — you never know how they might be interpreted or where they might appear.
I thought about that advice the other night at the annual gala of HiTOPS, the Princeton-based nonprofit provider of adolescent health services. I’m there because of my two teenage sons — one of them is performing in a jazz ensemble at the cocktail party and the other one has come along for the ride.
So in my role as the doting parent of a trombone-playing ninth grader, I am in the grand entrance of the Trenton Country Club, running a video camera as he and some classmates present jazz standards for the gala arrivals. At one point I back into the ballroom and swing the camera around to show the crowd that has gathered. As I turn back toward the jazz ensemble, two women — chattering to each other — pass in front of the lens.
They excuse themselves. No problem, I assure them. But then one of them taps me on the shoulder. Is the camera capturing sound as well as video, she wonders. Of course, I tell her. Is there anyway I could back the tape up and delete the snippet of conversation that includes her and her friend? Not for me, I respond, since I barely know how to run the camera. But the shameless reporter in me has a different answer: Later on I’m going to replay that tape and figure out exactly what needed to be deleted from that sound track.
After the music is over HiTOPS executive director Elizabeth Casparian introduces the friends and sponsors of the organization, and various award winners, including the winner of the “Guardian Youth Award,” a woman named Shelby Knox from Lubbock, Texas, who says she has spent a third of her life fighting for sex education for teenagers and fighting against programs that teach abstinence only as the answer to teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Her efforts have been the subject of a documentary, “The Education of Shelby Knox,” and she appeared in Washington, D.C., in March for the introduction of federal legislation that would committee federal funding of comprehensive sex education.
Given the venue at which she is speaking (HiTOPS was originally named “Health Interested Teens’ Own Program for Sexuality”), none of Knox’s resume seems that astonishing. Not until she attaches some numbers to it: She first got involved at the age of 15, and now she’s 22. She’s just a kid, I suddenly realize.
Later, as Knox mingles with the crowd, I ask her a few questions. What do her parents do, I wonder, and do they approve of her crusade. And how did she ever get started down this path at the age of 15? Her father is a car salesman and her mom stays at home. They are a Republican family (her younger brother campaigned for McCain) but they approve of her efforts.
And, she continues, “I got into this at age 15 because of an off-hand remark I made to a reporter just like you. I told him in Lubbock, Texas, there wasn’t anything for teenagers to do except have sex.” And, she continued, the media went wild with that, and never quoted the rest of her comment — that she was a virgin and basically left with little to do.
When I got home I googled Shelby Knox for the rest of the story. Lubbock was in the news as a Bible belt town with an abstinence- only sex education program that had yielded a disproportionately high level of teenage pregnancy. Knox had quite a story to tell:
“Every year in high school we were herded into the auditorium for a lecture from a local youth pastor about the birds and the bees. At the culmination of every presentation, the pastor pulled a girl up on stage, produced a dirty toothbrush from his pocket and asked if she would brush her teeth with it. When she invariably said no, he pulled out another toothbrush, this one in its original box, and repeated the question. When she said yes, he brandished the rejected toothbrush and announced, “If you have sex before marriage, you are the dirty toothbrush.”
Knox almost fell for it herself. “I made a virginity pledge and took on my school district’s abstinence-only policy in the same year,” she says on one of her many Internet postings. “I’m still fighting, still learning, and speaking my truth about being a young woman in America.”
Just last week, she tells the rapt audience at the HiTOPS benefit, Knox, now a graduate of the University of Texas, was moved to tears when she heard that President Obama’s new budget calls for the total elimination of federal funding for abstinence-only sex education programs. The current generation of young people, she says “are not asking for a bailout. We just want the facts that can save our lives.”
And it all began with that off-hand remark. After I’m done googling I go back to the videotape. There are the kids on their instruments, the camera looks back into the ballroom for a few seconds, and then swings back to the musicians. At that point two women move into close-up view. One says to the other, with a look of shock, “Oh my God!”
I rewind it and listen carefully to the sound immediately preceding the OMG moment. I can’t make out a single word. I listen again. Nothing. There’s no story here, I think to myself. But maybe I can spin some kind of column out of Shelby Knox’s casual comment.