25 years ago CBS News’ David Begnaud met a teacher who believed in him — and changed his life. Here’s their story.

25 years ago CBS News’ David Begnaud met a teacher who believed in him — and changed his life. Here’s their story.

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David Begnaud is the lead national correspondent for “CBS Mornings.”  This is his personal story about the teacher who became his mentor and life-long friend. 


It’s been 25 years since I met the woman who changed the direction of my life. Josette Cook Surratt was an English teacher at Teurlings Catholic High School in 1998, and I was a 15-year-old freshman who was gay at a time when that was not readily accepted. I also had been diagnosed with Tourette’s, which was also not well-understood at the time. 

It was a lot of baggage for this young kid. But Ms. Surratt had a way of seeing beyond the surface — into my soul, really.  

Surratt said she saw the wall I had up.  

“I saw the wall. I saw the defensiveness. I saw the anger and frustration,” she said when I recently visited her at my old high school in Lafayette, Louisiana. “I didn’t want that to impede on any of the things that he deserved.” 

I felt drawn to Surratt and her teaching style, which combined a no-nonsense approach and uplifting manner. I wasn’t exactly at the head of the class, but my deep voice distinguished me among students, and soon Surratt, the head coach of the school’s speech team, was after me to join.

“The timbre of (his) voice was just so natural … that I thought he belongs doing speech,” Surratt said. 

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David Begnaud and Ms. Surratt 

CBS News


She said she felt it would be an injustice if I didn’t pursue it. So I did, and joined the speech team, winning second place at our high school speech competition.

And as Surratt says, I never looked back.  

“You never didn’t not bring home a trophy from then on. It was beautiful to watch,” she told me. 

More important than the trophies were the life lessons. I remember one day something was going on, and Surratt led me into a classroom, closed the door and asked me, “What are you running from?” It was one of the most pivotal moments of my life.

Instead of hearing, “What’s wrong with you?” I heard, “What happened to you?” Rather than getting defensive, I was able to open up. I think I shared everything with her: Tourette’s, growing up gay, having the most tortured, tormented childhood you could imagine. 

She also told me to change my “map,” saying if I use an old roadmap, I won’t get to the destination because maps change. She said, “Change your roadmap, David.” It was an aha moment for me. 

“My heart hurt for you, and for any child that has to go through that, because it should not have to be that hard, and I wanted you to know there’s a better life. There’s a good life,” Surratt said. 

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David Begnaud and Ms. Surratt

CBS News


Surratt recalled my tenacity and how I was able to turn that into something that “parlayed beautifully … in broadcasting.” 

In my senior year, Ms. Surratt entered me in dramatic interpretation at a state speaking competition. She thought I could do the drama well, and I read a speech about a man who was dying and went through a box of mementoes to reflect on his life. I had never been in that man’s shoes before, but I had experienced a great deal of pain. I always tell people, even now, that I can admire your successes, but I can relate to your pain, because we’ve all had pain. Now I use those skills in my work, skills that I gained because Ms. Surratt believed in me. 

“I think every human being needs to know that somebody sees them,” Surratt said. “Because if you get somebody, then you believe in your worth, you get them. It’s like that person understands me. And that is so lacking today that so many kids feel not understood.” 

The pain I experienced ended up being the fuel that propelled me to where I am today. I wouldn’t wish the pain and suffering on anybody and would never want to relive it, but without it, I don’t know that I’d be where I am.

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David Begnaud, lead national correspondent for “CBS Mornings.”

CBS News


“I think that message for these kids today that have so much [pain] in their lives is never going to be old, because they need to hear what it can become,” Surratt said. 

Pain is relevant and it’s relatable, and as Surratt says, “it can bring beautiful results.” You just have to be willing to sit in it and learn from it. 

For the woman who has shown up for me so many times over the years, I was honored to show up for her induction to the National Speech and Debate Hall of Fame. Ms. Surratt is planning to retire at the end of this year after 50 years of teaching — and making a difference. 

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