David Begnaud is the chief correspondent for CBS Mornings. This is his personal story about the teacher who became his mentor and lifelong 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 college freshman who was gay at a time when it wasn’t accepted. I had been toowhich was also not well understood at the time.
It was a lot of baggage for this young child. But Ms. Surratt had a way of seeing beyond the surface—into my soul, actually.
Surratt said she saw the wall I built.
“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 this to get in the way of the things he earned.”
I was 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 set me apart from the students, and soon Surratt, the head coach of the school’s speech team, came after me to join in.
“The timbre of (his) voice was just so natural … that I thought he was part of speaking,” Surratt said.
She said she thought it would be unfair if I didn’t go through with it. So I did and joined the speech team, where I won second place in our high school speech competition.
And as Surratt says, I’ve never looked back.
“From that moment on you never took home another trophy. It was beautiful to see,” 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 in my life.
Instead of hearing, “What’s wrong with you?” I heard, “What happened to you?” Instead of becoming defensive, I was able to open up. I think I shared everything with her: Tourette’s, growing up gay and having the most tortured, tormented childhood you could imagine.
She also told me to change my ‘map’, saying that if I use an old route map I won’t reach the destination because the maps change. She said, “Change your road map, David.” It was an aha moment for me.
“My heart ached for you, and for every child who has to go through that, because it shouldn’t be this hard, and I wanted you to know that there is a better life. There is a good life,” Surratt said.
Surratt remembered my tenacity and how I was able to turn that into something that “exhibited beautifully… on the air.”
In my senior year, Mrs. Surratt entered me for dramatic interpretation at a state speaking competition. She thought I could play the drama well, and I read a speech about a man who was dying and went through a box of memories to reflect on his life. I had never been in that man’s shoes, but I had experienced a lot 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 I acquired because Mrs. Surratt believed in me.
“I think every person needs to know that someone sees them,” Surratt said. “Because when you get someone, you believe in your worth, then you get that person. It’s like that person understands me. And that is so lacking today that so many children feel misunderstood.”
The pain I experienced was ultimately the fuel that got me to where I am today. I wouldn’t wish the pain and suffering on anyone and would never want to relive it, but without it I don’t know I would be where I am today.
“I think this is a message for these kids today who have so much [pain] in their lives will never get old because they need to hear what it can become,” Surratt said.
Pain is relevant and relatable, and as Surratt says, “It can produce beautiful results.” You just have to be willing to be 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 appear for her induction into the National Speech and Debate Hall of Fame. Ms Surratt plans to retire at the end of this year after 50 years of teaching – and making a difference.