A Keller family of three child “geniuses” are taking their achievements in stride — and looking to the future with hope.
by Tyler Hicks
August 16, 2022
Opal Lee, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” is in the dining room eating Panera. Across from her sits the 19-year-old holder of two records: youngest woman and youngest Black person to ever graduate from law school. Next to her is the 16-year-old entrepreneur working on his MBA and a Texas Woman’s University student who is 14 years old.
Before the conversation turns to history, politics, and education, the topic du jour is the new chicken sandwich by Panera. The consensus is that it’s pretty good.
Such is the surreal scene on a scorching summer afternoon at the Taylor Schlitz residence in Keller, home to three child “geniuses” who, if you ask Haley (the record-holder with a law degree from SMU), would rather be called something else.
“A lot of times people will use the term ‘genius,’ which I’m not really a fan of,” Haley says. “It removes the possible inspiration of our story, and people might feel like they can’t do what we’ve done. But they can.”
In addition to Ian, the 16-year-old businessman, and Hana, the 14-year-old college student, the family includes dad William Schlitz, a communications and political consultant, and mom Dr. Myiesha Taylor, an ER doctor. The family has been in the news recently because of Haley’s dual records, an achievement that has sparked equal parts awe and curiosity. After all, it’s hard enough to wrap your head around a 19-year-old graduating from SMU law school; now consider the fact that one of her younger siblings is approaching college graduation, and the other already has a degree and his own company.
Yet like their eldest daughter, Dr. Taylor and her husband are quick to dispel the notion that there is a “secret ingredient” to their three children’s success. Indeed, each of the children were homeschooled for some duration of time, but the more you talk to the Schlitz family, the more you see there is something far beyond homeschool at work. Each member of the family has an earnest, curious, and compassionate approach to life that seems to pervade every space they occupy.
As Dr. Taylor puts it, “I want to know all the things. Why wouldn’t you want to know all the things?”
Shortly after the Panera is put away and the family (plus friend and living legend Opal Lee) gathers in the living room for a discussion of how they got here, it becomes apparent that they’re not interested in solely talking about their respective accomplishments. Rather, they brim with passion while discussing how to use their time, talents, and stories to make an impact — whatever that impact looks like for each of them.
“Sometimes people look at me and my siblings and they’re like, ‘What’s the rush? Why are you going so fast?’” Haley says. “That’s like asking a second grader, ‘What’s the rush?’ If they’re doing what works best for them, then they’re in the right place.”
“We are exactly where we’re meant to be,” she adds later. “We’re doing what interests us and helps us excel.”
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
— An excerpt from “When Great Trees Fall,” by Maya Angelou
The future Dr. Myiesha Taylor was born in Compton. When it rained and water seeped through the roof of her family home, she and her mother would spread cups across the floor to catch the drips.
In class, she was often singled out whenever the topic of race arose — something her children would experience decades later in Texas.
“It felt bad to be the only Black person in class, and every time they talked about MLK or Rosa Parks, they turned to me,” she recalls. “I’m sitting there like, ‘I’m the same age as you! I eat tacos on Tuesday just like you do!’”
Basketball was one of Myiesha’s earliest outlets, a way to block out the noise and channel her passion. As her husband points out, she was terrific. “My wife can be way too modest,” he says, always eager to give his family the praise they deserve. But the future physician wasn’t just talented; she was a hard worker.
After graduating summa cum laude from Xavier University of Louisiana, she enrolled in med school at USC. As reported by The Dallas Morning News, her interest in a medical career ran deeper than a love of medicine.
Her father, Dwight Taylor, worked in a fish market in the Watts area of Los Angeles. In 1992, after the acquittal of the police officers caught on tape beating Rodney King, the region was engulfed in civil unrest. Dwight was shot, and it took 12 hours for him to get help. By then it was too late; Dwight died when Myiesha was just 18.
“That’s one of the reasons I decided to become an ER doctor,” she told the Morning News. “I wanted a field where you can potentially immediately change the outcome of someone’s illness. There’s a golden hour, where if you can get to the hospital, we can sew up the holes and keep your heart working. But if the hole is not repaired in that hour, your body loses the ability to compensate. I think that if my dad had gone to the hospital within that hour, maybe he could have been saved.”
Dr. Taylor trained at LA County’s King/Drew Medical Center, a beleaguered, now-closed facility that, according to Politico, was an essential resource for people in Taylor’s hometown.
“The county-run hospital was also the only source of health care for hundreds of thousands of residents of this poverty-riven area of the city,” journalist Victoria Colliver wrote in 2017. “Its emergency department had been the place mothers went to deliver babies, children were brought if they had high fevers, and gunshot victims were sewn up.”
She learned a lot, but like in class, she suffered casual cruelties for the color of her skin. Dr. Taylor was one of only a few women of color working at the hospital. Sometimes people, not realizing she was a resident, would ask her to fetch them a cup of coffee.
Amidst these indignities and the insanity of a resident’s schedule, her husband William was her rock. It was around this time that Taylor gave birth to their first daughter, Haley. As she told the Morning News in 2013, she handed her first daughter off to William and joked, “See you in two and a half years.” Ian’s birth came a few years later, and a few years after that, the couple adopted Hana from Ethiopia. By that time Dr. Taylor had moved on from King/Drew and spent years serving in various high-profile positions in hospitals throughout California. The family was open to a change, so the Taylor Schlitz crew moved to Texas.
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Dr. Taylor may indeed be as humble and modest as her husband says, but she will admit one thing:
“I’m a little bit of an overachiever.”
For instance, she didn’t just homeschool her children; she wrote a book about it. And before the book, there was a blog: an exhaustive, picture-filled document of anything any interested party would ever want to know about the homeschool process.
It was a way to hold herself accountable and keep pertinent info organized, she says, while half-joking that it was also her “self-preservation documentation,” a way to prove to any doubters that what she was doing was indeed legit.
“I made it my business to recruit the type of support I needed to pull it off, and I used the blog as a platform to connect with others so my kids could have a transcript that resembled what colleges are used to seeing,” she says. “I even had a site with pictures to document all the educational activity we did: travel, typing, horseback riding, all of it, so if anyone ever tried to come for me, I had it all ready.”
Technically, it started with math. In fourth grade, Haley told her parents she didn’t like the subject, and her parents were understanding; the teaching-to-the-test concept irked them. When opting out of the STAAR test (an exam designed to ostensibly measure whether a kid is ready for the next grade) proved to be a convoluted process, Dr. Taylor and William decided to homeschool Haley starting in the fifth grade when Haley was 11. According to the recent law school graduate, the decision was transformative.
“I really was able to thrive in this environment where my needs were being catered to, and I was able to focus on where I was weak and invest in where I was strong,” Haley says. Her education, she says, was no longer just about getting the right answer, and that freedom opened up endless opportunities. She checked all the boxes that are required of homeschool students, and in addition, she had even more time to pursue the topics and subjects that truly interest her.
Further, she learned math wasn’t the enemy.
“I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t like math? I’ll show you, ‘I don’t like math!’” Dr. Taylor says with a laugh. Haley would ultimately become part of the top 25% of math students competing in global contests, and she graduated high school by age 13. Yet while the specter of a hotly debated standardized exam certainly played a big role, the STAAR test wasn’t the sole reason Dr. Taylor and William decided to homeschool Haley.
The Tarrant County school district in which Haley was enrolled didn’t allow her to test for the “Gifted and Talented” program on the basis that she entered the district after kindergarten. Additionally, like her mother, Haley experienced abject racism while at school: one of the places children are, in theory, supposed to be safe.
One day in class at Bear Creek Elementary School, one of Haley’s teachers was trying to immerse their students in the concept of the Civil War. The teacher separated the class into two sections: North and South. Haley was put in the Southern group and cast as a mixed-race slave (William, Haley’s father, is white). In turn, one of the students looked at Haley and said, “You know, if we lived back in that time, I would own you.”
Her siblings have faced ample discrimination, too. Dr. Taylor says neighborhood parents have called their kids back inside upon seeing Hana and Ian playing in front of their home, and she and her husband don’t let the local police department know when they’re leaving town, so as to prevent any patrolling cops from thinking the young Black man inside their house (Ian) is a burglar.
“People are afraid of the hard conversations,” William says. “But no one thinks about the hard conversations Black, brown, LGBT families, and Asian families in Texas and in this country have to have with their kids.”
For instance, William and Dr. Taylor explained to Ian exactly how he should act if he gets pulled over by the police, and William has installed a comprehensive camera system in Ian’s car.
“If he gets pulled over, I have an entire recording of that interaction sent straight to my phone,” William says, his tone gravely serious.
For his part, Ian started homeschool around second grade, and like his siblings, he has consistently engaged in a vast array of extracurricular activities. In fact, while sitting in his living room on that hot summer afternoon, Ian has to be reminded of the extent of his resume. He mentions water polo, piano, and the upright bass, but Haley and Dr. Taylor remind he also plays drums and fences. Oh, and he has been a freelance animator for five years, and he started his own company, Kidlamity Gaming, which hosts tournaments for young gamers.
“If you’re homeschooled, it’s almost like people think you’re a freak of nature,” Ian says. “Like, ‘OK, you’re smart, but where are your friends.’”
This sentiment bothers Dr. Taylor. First, it’s simply not true: Each of her three kids have been involved in a litany of activities throughout their childhood, and the family takes an active role in their local Jack and Jill of America chapter. Second, she believes the idea that traditional schooling is the only way to make friends and be social is, well, a bit insulting.
“The No. 1 question I used to get is, ‘What about prom?’” Dr. Taylor says. “I was like, ‘Prom?! Are you kidding me? You want to stay in school for 12 years so you can go to a gym and dance with someone you haven’t talked to in three years?’”
It’s important to note that neither of the Taylor Schlitz parents nor their children harbor any judgment for families who opt for the typical K-12 style of education; quite the opposite. They simply believe families should do what makes the most sense for their children, and for them, that was homeschool.
At the same time, William and Dr. Taylor are both disappointed the Keller community has not embraced their children in the way they hoped. For all the press Haley has gotten for her dual records, William notes, the city hasn’t recognized her beyond the sharing of a Facebook post.
“If we were in Dallas, she would’ve gotten the key to the city,” William says. “Fort Worth would have done it, too. The council there would have done it. I know Mayor Parker: She’s a Republican, and we’re Democrats, but she would’ve done it.”
To anyone meeting the Taylor Schlitz family for the first time, William’s role becomes clear pretty fast. He’s a protector, a cheerleader, and a fierce, fiery advocate for his wife and children. He’ll also be the first to admit that, at one point, he was an obstacle.
“Haley and I were talking recently, and I said to her, ‘You know, I was one of your biggest hurdles,’” he says. “Because I thought, ‘This is what 13 means. 13 means this. It has to go in this box, and if it doesn’t go in this box, something’s wrong.’ Once I got out of the way and stopped trying to put them where I or society thought they needed to be, they had all the success in the world.”
To him, Hana’s admirable ascent through education is a perfect example of why society shouldn’t put kids in boxes of any kind.
“People see that Hana is a rising junior at TWU at age 14, and they can’t make that work in their head, because two and two has to be four.”
Opal Lee herself was amazed by Hana when she met the family at a recent event for Fort Worth Justice of the Peace candidate Rodney Lee.
“I met Hana and asked where she goes to school, and she said, ‘Texas Woman’s University,’” Lee recalls. “And I said, ‘Texas Woman’s University?!’”
The legendary activist has been friends with the family ever since. They share many passions and common causes, including education.
Earlier this year in an interview with D Magazine, Lee said, “We can’t rest on our laurels. There is still work to be done. Our educational system doesn’t tell the truth, and we need the truth told … we have to work together to get rid of the disparities.”
Haley Taylor Schlitz couldn’t agree more. She sees a career in education policy in her future, and she is a staunch advocate for the CROWN Act, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” The legislation aims to ban discrimination based on hair textures and styles commonly associated with race. Hana, the family’s resident book lover, is particularly passionate about school districts banning books in the name of protecting children.
“The fact that books are being banned because people don’t agree with them is terrible,” she says. She recently read several books on topics like race, police brutality, and sexual assault, and she says she “can’t imagine” not being able to read something because someone else deemed it inappropriate for her.
On this point, her sister agrees.
“We often completely miscalculate just how much kids can handle and just how deep the conversations can get with them,” Haley says. “We can handle a lot. Trust us.”
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
When Dr. Taylor’s mother passed, Haley turned to a poem for solace. “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou is a searing reminder of the pain created by loss: a pain many of us know all too well, and nearly all of us will feel at some point. It’s also a poem of hope.
The final lines — “We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.” — remind readers like Haley that we can learn from those who come before and after us, even when they’re gone. Having Opal Lee in her life has reminded Haley, once again, how important these “cross-generational connections” can be.
Or, as Haley puts it: “If every generation tried to do it on their own, you’d be making the wheel all over again.”
When Opal Lee was 12, around the same age Haley would be starting homeschool about 77 years later, a gang of white supremacists vandalized and set fire to her family’s home. According to a BBC story, the police simply watched as the house burned to the ground. It was June 19, 1939, and roughly 77 years later, around the same time Haley was now actually starting homeschool, Opal Lee would walk from Fort Worth to D.C. as part of her effort to turn Juneteenth into a federal holiday. She wouldn’t officially succeed for another five years, at which point Juneteenth, a day commemorating the emancipation of slaves, would finally get the seal Lee long sought.
“I believe we should be about the business of change,” Lee says. “And I know it can be done, because I’ve changed a few minds of my own.”
“We just need some sharp minds, and that boy right there has one of the sharpest I’ve ever seen,” she adds later, pointing to Ian. “I’m not preaching; I’m just telling you.”
Toward the end of the conversation in the Taylor Schlitz living room, long after a wide-ranging chant on everything from homeschooling and children’s literature has ended, Opal Lee turns to the family’s three children.
“I’ve heard you all talk about the things you care about,” Lee says, “and as I’m listening, I’m believing change can actually happen.” Now she wants to know if the kids believe it, too.
“Do you all believe we can change the world one at a time? Do you believe we have the strength to make others aware of what has happened?”
One by one, the children say yes. It takes listening, they say. It takes caring. And it takes lifting up one another. This might be their greatest, most admirable trait: not the size of their intellect or the enormity of their accomplishments, but their hope.
“When you’re young, it’s really easy to get bogged down by social media,” Haley says. “It’s really easy to feel helpless and fall into that trap where life is just happening to you. And something I’m always keeping in mind is, ‘How can I happen to life? How can I leave the world better than I found it? How can I make a difference? Not only how can I achieve reaching my beacon of light, but how can I blaze a trail not so they can follow it, but they can make their own. So they see how trails are made.’ Because I don’t think you find your path. I think you make it.”
by Tyler Hicks
August 16, 2022
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