Seven years ago in October, Lauren Hopson made a speech.
Little did she know that the video of the remarks she presented at the October 2013 school board meeting would not only strike a chord with teachers across Knox County, but would resonate across the state, and then go viral across America, pointing her onto a path of activism that would not only help spur change to Knox County Schools, but lead her to a new love and a new life that’s about to begin.
On Friday, Hopson-Sorensen – her name since her marriage to fellow teacher-advocate Phil Sorensen, whom she met in 2016 at National Education Association meetings – was packing up the last of her belongings in her classroom at Halls Elementary School, when some of the colleagues she has inspired threw her a surprise, socially-distant, drive-by “Thank You” parade.
The parade was organized by her colleague Dave Gorman, who showed up early on the pretext of taking a picture for this column, and friends from around Knox County drove by with signs and gifts and balloons. For many, this may be the only opportunity to say good-bye in person, since she will be leaving Knoxville this summer to join her husband, who lives in Lake Tahoe for now, but has taken early retirement and is applying for new jobs in other locations.
Proper goodbyes are in short supply lately, thanks to the abrupt state-of-emergency forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. So, the 2019-20 school year ended with a whimper, depriving teachers of the chance to say goodbye. Not getting to see her second-graders again has been particularly hard on Hopson-Sorensen, since there won’t be a “next year” for her, so she was feeling pretty blue until Gorman showed up and lured her outside to take pictures. He killed time until the fun could begin.
Originally trained as a social worker, Hopson-Sorensen changed career paths and was awarded a Lyndhurst Fellowship, which allowed her to earn a master’s in elementary education. She interned at Sterchi Elementary School in 2000 and went to work at Halls in 2001, 10 days after 911. HES would be her professional home for the next 19 years, save for the two years she took off to serve as president of the Knox County Education Association. She jokes that she lasted four years longer than James McIntyre, the former superintendent of schools who was the focus of the teachers’ ire.
She and Phil haven’t seen each other since January, and she’s not sure where they will end up or what she will do when they get there, although she is excited that he has applied for NEA-related unified services positions in Colorado, where outdoor opportunities abound.
“We’ve talked about places we’d want to live, and places we’d not want to live. We both said Colorado would be a real cool place to be. My problem is, I had my dream job when I was 19 – being a camp counselor. So, if Phil gets one of those jobs in Denver, maybe I’ll be a camp counselor again.”
Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties.