In 1928, Moses Howard was born with a cleft palate and into a poor farming family living in the South. He believed the odds of becoming an esteemed scholar were stacked against him. But an early interest in reading and a persistent personality pushed him into a career in education. For most of his life, he’s taught school in the United States and East Africa. He’s earned a handful of degrees, including his Ph.D. Howard also is a beloved author. His novels and children’s books often tell the stories of champions who prevailed despite great hurdles. And while he’s almost 90 years old, Howard intends to go back to school. Because to him, education is the key to a great life, and he still has more to learn. We talked to him about his childhood, his life in Africa, and the importance of education.
On being a curious kid:
There was a lot to be inquisitive about. I was born in Mississippi. I was the son of sharecroppers. We had nothing. My parents had nothing. Everything belonged to the people that we worked for. They got three-fourths of what we made, and one-fourth was left for 11 kids.
On having a birth defect:
I was born with a cleft palate, and I couldn’t speak. It was a very terrible one. It was so terrible that it was written up in journals because it was unusual.
On forming words:
One day (my mother) was in the kitchen, and I said something. And she stopped what she was doing and came back and looked at me. She said, “What?” and I said it again. And she said, “Oh my God, you’re learning to talk.” (He was about 6 years old.)
On finding comfort in reading:
Books were the only things I could turn to because I could read at an early age. It helped me to communicate with (my siblings).
On an early interest in biology:
I was an isolated person for most of my life because of (the cleft palate). So I learned from where I lived. I learned from the animals. I learned from the garden. My father was a kind of hunter. He used to hunt squirrels and rabbits and brought them home, and when they cut them open to cook them, I studied their anatomy.
On pursuing an education:
I was the first (in my family) to go to university, but I was not the first to finish high school. My mother went to the eighth grade. My father went to the fourth grade. And then I had sisters who finished high school.
On teaching in Uganda:
I got a Fulbright fellowship, and I went to Africa for 10 years.
On how long he’s been teaching:
In America? I don’t know. Probably about 60 years. You know I’m very old. I’m ancient, really.
On continuing his education:
Being competent has become my life goal. I don’t want one degree; I want several. Right now, I would like to go back to university and get a degree in art.
On seeking education later in life:
What you know has changed since you knew it.
On his book Nzinga: African Warrior Queen:
I spent 17 years researching that book. I was writing that book because it was something close to my heart. The closer I got to the woman, I knew her. And she had been dead (hundreds) of years. (The book is a fictional biography on the 17th-century African queen warrior.)
On writing strong female characters:
I was the last boy (at home). I was with girls all the time. I got this respect for women. I can tell you something — women can change everything.
On being an advocate for learning:
(Education) is the way out of everything. It is your passport to any place. I learned that very early. It was a way to change us. As people we were sharecroppers, and now we’re no longer sharecroppers. Education, that did it.
On life advice:
There’s more than what you see. Try to understand the deeper meaning of what is happening to you now.