"Counting the days of our lives" was a key theme that author Jim Wooten spoke about to Catawba College first-year students on Tuesday, March 24th. He took the stage in Keppel Auditorium to share some insights about his book, "We Are All the Same," Catawba's '08-'09 common summer reading text for first-year students.
In "We Are All the Same," the reader is introduced to Nkosi Johnson, a Zulu, HIV-positive child with no hope for living, but whose life remains anything but hopeless. The reader also meets the indefatigable, white South African Gail Johnson who becomes Nkosi's foster mother. Johnson's persistent as an advocate for children like Nkosi helps draw international attention to discrimination and personalizes the apartheid struggle in their country.
Wooten said he recently encountered the phrase, "the days of our lives," when reading letters that his late father wrote to his parents in 1944 and 1945. He then started thinking about that phrase in the context of his own life and in the lives of others.
He recalled his grandfathers, both of whom were born in the mid-1880s and lived into the mid-1960s, and he encouraged the students to consider what happened during his grandfathers' long and healthy lives. "Automobiles, airplanes, electric lights, two World Wars, the Great Depression, the GI Bill, radio and television, and the deaths of several of their children.
"I myself have lived more than 26,000 days," he explained. "During that time, there was Vietnam, Watergate, and a presidential impeachment. I've survived two airplane crashes, a helicopter crash, a shrapnel wound, my first wife died, I found another wife, I had five daughters and eight grandchildren.
"I am reminded of the Chinese birthday wish: 'May you lead an interesting life,' and basically I have because I fell into this craft [reporting] and that has led to the joy of my days, whether I counted them or not."
Wooten asked if there were a student present who was celebrating his or her birthday. "If today is your birthday, you are 20 years old and have lived 7,305 days."During those days, he said, the history of the world "seems to rush past us and then there's your personal history. Your personal history is a process."
Wooten then alluded to Nkosi, whom he called one of the heroes in his book, who "lived with spine, heart, a smile and great courage."
"Nkosi was dying the moment he was born and he was building his personal history. He died when he was 11 so he had lived exactly 4,000 days. He would have been 20 years old now if he were alive today," Wooten said. "I became interested in AIDS and so I became interested in Nkosi.
"Reporters are not supposed to cross that space between people and the story they're covering, but I couldn't help myself. It was like falling in love with the two women I married and I couldn't stop myself," he noted, explaining how Nkosi's story became the story on which his book was based.
Wooten spoke of Nkosi being wise beyond his years – a young boy who "gradually became aware to himself that he was somebody important."Nkosi traveled to America twice and made one trip to Europe, Wooten said. "His was a truth that has stuck with me – courage is not only found on the battlefields of the world.
"He, in an odd way for a man my age, became my hero," he continued, speaking about Nkosi. "There is a law on the books in South Africa now that is called 'Nkosi's Law.' It allows students with AIDS to attend schools just like other children."
Wooten recalled a time when Nkosi asked him if he wanted to ask him about death. A reluctant Wooten replied, "No," but recalled that Nkosi wanted to tell him about it and did, saying: "I don't want to die, I do want to live but I don't want to live as if I'm afraid to die."
Before taking questions from the audience, Wooten shared Nkosi's mantra: "Do all you can with what you have in the time you have in the place you are."
Of Nkosi's mantra Wooten said, "It has stuck with me because it was not about AIDS, it was about life and the days in our lives and the life in our days."
Of his book which captured Nkosi's story, Wooten explained, "I think we have an obligation to pass along when we meet exceptional people. If you've found unusual strength, unusual goodness, pass it along."
Wooten was an award-winning senior correspondent for ABC News and the recipient of a John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism for "We Are All the Same." His Robert F. Kennedy Book Award-winning book's subtitle is "A Story of a Boy's Courage and a Mother's Love."He is currently working on his second book concerning the four years of President Jimmy Carter's administration (1977-1981).
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