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A world of wisdom from a boy with AIDS

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I was in a store the other day when I heard a child, perhaps 10 or 11, rattle off her Christmas wish list to her mother, who, to my surprise, actually seemed to be listening.

The list was so long it was obscene, but neither the mother nor the daughter seemed embarrassed. I sensed that the child already knew she would get everything come Christmas morning.

For some reason, this annoyed me to no end, so much so that I wanted to smack the kid on the side of the head. But I don't make it a habit to hit the children of strangers, so I just walked away instead.

The scene stuck with me, though, and I began thinking about how spoiled we all are, not just this little brat in suburban Washington. I thought about how most of us have more than we need and how Christmas only seems to exaggerate the situation. You have only to wander the stores to see how much useless stuff there is out there.

The best gifts never come from Tiffany's, anyway. Veteran ABC News correspondent Jim Wooten knows this better than anyone.

For years, Wooten, 67, has wandered the world, looking for stories. Many of them took him to Africa. It's there he met Nkosi Johnson, a Zulu boy who was born not only into abject poverty but also infected with the AIDS virus.

For some reason, one even Wooten cannot quite explain, the two clicked. ''I was drawn to him. I think it was almost chemical,'' he said.

Wooten found himself making excuses to return to the boy, who was living in an AIDS hospice in South Africa. It was there that they bonded, where Wooten learned a few things about life and where Nkosi died at the age of 12, by then a celebrity in the war against AIDS.

It's all in Wooten's new book, We Are All the Same: A Story of a Boy's Courage and a Mother's Love.

''The most amazing thing is he understood that he was in this death grip. He knew he wouldn't live to be an old man, or even a young man. . . . If I understood I had a terminal illness, I think I'd start drinking again. I'd go right downhill. He did the opposite.''

Wooten said the lad also knew exactly what he was doing. ''He could manipulate me no end.''

The story of Nkosi Johnson is not new. For centuries, there have been tales of children being the sage ones, imparting great wisdom to the cynical elders.

Nkosi's mantra was quite simple: ''Do all you can with what you have, in the time you have, in the place you are.''

Despite reciting that line in countless press interviews, Wooten is still blown away by it. He repeated it to me just to be sure I got it.

''The whole purpose to me now is to pass it on. If you meet remarkable people, you have a moral obligation to pass their story along.''

Wooten acknowledged that it was difficult to revisit those times he spent with Nkosi. ''But once I learned to deal with his death, the memories were so good. I recognized this as a golden gift.''

Today is World AIDS Day.

Maybe this holiday season we should all ask for the gift of a Nkosi Johnson in our lives.

Maybe that girl with the long, long list might think of adding Wooten's book to hers.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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