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In the silence: Falcons' Hollis learning valuable lessons from deaf mother
Flowery Branch High’s Ishmael Hollis works the ball underneath the basket through traffic during the first half of the Falcons' game with West Hall High Tuesday at the Flowery Branch High gymnasium. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

Penny Hollis, mother of Flowery Branch center Ishmael Hollis, hasn’t missed a Falcons’ game this season.

Like the rest of the parents, she claps for the good and shakes her head at the bad, and at the conclusion of each game, rehashes the events of the last 32 minutes with her son.

The only difference is that the mother and son use sign language.

An illness at the age of six caused damage to Penny Hollis’ ear drums, and deafness.

She’s never heard her son’s voice much less his name announced for the starting lineup. She feels sound through vibrations and listens by reading lips, except where her son is concerned.

“Kind of how English is to us, that’s kind of how signing was to me,” Ishmael Hollis said. “I grew up with it, and it’s just second nature to me now.”

Growing up, Hollis admitted feeling embarrassed about his mother’s hearing impairment, unsure of how others would react.

“Now it’s cool having a parent that’s deaf,” he said. “She does things that hearing people can do and I really appreciate that about her.”

He’s even teaching sign language to his teammates.

“I thought it was neat to watch (Hollis) and his mother talk,” Falcons’ senior Josh Barrett said. “I’d never known anybody who had a hearing impairment and I thought it was cool, so I asked him to teach me some stuff.

“When she tells me good game, I say thank you. I forgot how to do it now, but I can,” Barrett said with a laugh.

Penny Hollis was a three-sport athlete at the Georgia School for the Deaf in Rome and according to Hollis, “She’s where I got my athletic background.”

Hollis is currently the leading scorer and rebounder for Flowery Branch, averaging 17 points per game and just over nine rebounds.

“It’s always been a goal of mine to take this sport as far as I can, but I’m more serious about the game this year than I was last year,” Hollis said. “Basketball helps me calm down and makes me feel better, it’s a way to get away.”

This summer, Hollis played AAU basketball for the Georgia Pony Express, a spinoff team of the Atlanta Celtics that included current Florida State players Chris Singleton and Pierre Jordan.

“He’s a great success story,” Flowery Branch coach Duke Mullis said. “Everybody is measured not by where you are but where you came from and, knowing a little bit about his background, he hasn’t had the easiest road.

“I’ve seen tremendous growth as a person and as a player. It’s been real rewarding to work with him and be his coach.”

The qualities passed from mother and son, however, go far beyond sign language and athletic ability.
Penny Hollis has never let her hearing impairment stand in the way of her life, and that strength has rubbed off on her son.

“I really thank my mom for never using being deaf as something to hold her back,” Hollis said.

Hollis’ mother, who works nights as a mail carrier in Duluth, helps him with his homework before leaving for work and goes in later on game nights.

The two enjoy watching television together and Hollis checks his mother’s cell phone messages and then relays them, admitting that she really just uses the cell phone for texting.

“It’s funny,” Hollis said. “I like closed captioning on TV and everybody else can’t stand it. I’m so used to it, I will sometimes mute the TV and I have no problem keeping up.”

In virtual silence, Penny Hollis has managed to raise a son who is not only grateful for her, but has learned from her lessons that he will keep.

“If I complain about something I just have to sit back and think how my mother’s life is, not being able to hear anything,” Hollis said. “Just because you have something that is kind of like a handicap, you don’t let that bring you down. You don’t let that stop you from doing what you want to, achieving your goals.”

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