It wasn't long, he says, before he was exiled to the portable classrooms — away from all the "normal" kids — to take special-education classes alongside children with special needs, some of whom were profoundly mentally retarded.
Giammanco was there because he was struggling with dyslexia, a disorder that afflicts one out of every seven people, many of whom — there are more than 30 million in the United States — don't even know they have the problem.
"It's a learning disability, and it's a hidden disability. You're not going to look at me and say, 'Oh, that guy's dyslexic,'" he says. "But it affects reading, it affects writing, it affects spelling. Sometimes it took me two hours to do the same simple homework assignment that another kid could do in 15 minutes. I had to sound out every letter. I had to decipher every word."
A teacher at Monterey High declared that Giammanco would "never amount to anything," but he was wrong. At just 23, he already appears to have a glowing future as a filmmaker, a career that has been galvanized by a 30-minute short feature, "bAd," which dramatizes the trials and emotions of a dyslexic child. Giammanco wrote and directed the movie, and financed the project with a $25,000 loan.
The Southern California premiere of "bAd" packed a 500-seat theater in Ventura, which stunned Giammanco, who wondered in advance if anybody would show up.
Then the movie won Best Short Film and Best Actor (18-year-old Remy Thorne), and was nominated for Best Picture at the Young Artist Awards, where it competed against productions from Warner Bros., Columbia, Searchlight and other Hollywood giants. It was featured at the L.A. Shorts Festival. And Giammanco has already signed with a film distributor, Starlight Entertainment.
The local premiere — free to the public — is scheduled at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Steinbeck Forum of the Monterey Conference Center. A panel of dyslexia experts will discuss the topic afterward.
The lead character in "bAd," played by Thorne who looks 12, is confused and overwhelmed by his struggle with dyslexia. He feels very much alone with his problems — hardly unusual for a dyslexic, Giammanco says — which casts a profound depression over his life. Many of the protagonist's difficulties are based on Giammanco's childhood.
"I was an extremely creative child, but when school came along I just started falling behind," he says. "My self-esteem began to suffer and I began to hate going there. I'd fake being sick or make any other excuse to get to stay home."
Among his worst days were those when a teacher would make the students read aloud. Giammanco remembers counting the number of students in his row, then counting down to the paragraph he would be asked to read. With tension mounting, he would silently rehearse to avoid embarrassing himself.
"I'd break out in a sweat, becoming more and more nervous as they moved down my aisle," he says. "I'd look for any excuse to get out of the room. I had to go to the bathroom, I felt sick, whatever."
A scene in "bAd" dramatizes the pressure Thorne's character feels during a read-aloud session, then shows him surreptitiously heating a thermometer with hot tap water in the nurse's office so he would be sent home with a fever. That came straight from Giammanco's childhood, he says.
In Giammanco's case, a two and a half year stint — from second to fourth grade — at Seaside's Chartwell School, which specializes in dyslexia, helped him understand and deal with his disability. He returned to public school in Monterey as a fifth-grader much better equipped, but that was merely the beginning of his journey toward feeling normal.
For one thing, he says, he was concerned that classmates might be laughing at him for mixing special-ed classes with his regular classes, a schedule he continued through high school.
"I never, ever told anybody I was dyslexic, and I didn't want anybody to find out," he says. "I had to go to the (portable classrooms) every day during fourth period at Monterey High, but I'd always wait till the bell had rung and everybody else had gone to class before I walked over there. I didn't want anybody to see me."
Compounding the frustration through most of his schooling was that too many teachers, mainstream and special-ed alike, didn't understand dyslexia and were ill-equipped to help him. Many reacted by belittling him, calling him a slacker, flunking him.
Class at Monterey High
For Giammanco, a turning point came when he enrolled in a filmmaking class during his junior year at Monterey High and discovered he had a talent that could evolve into an exciting career.
"Sometime during my junior year I began to think that maybe dyslexia wasn't the disadvantage I thought it was — maybe it was a gift," he says. "A dyslexic person is forced all his life to think outside the box to (find) ways to do some of the things a normal person does easily. I feel like that often creates a level of creativity, as well as a work ethic, that other people don't have, and those things help when you get out of school and into the real world."
Giammanco produces country music videos, and he expects to expand to feature films soon. He is writing two screenplays.
"If you had told me when I was in the seventh grade that I was going to be a writer someday, I would have said you were crazy," he says. "Thank God for spell check, because I still can't spell."
Hoping to educate
Meanwhile, he is hoping "bAd" proves enlightening to people who know little about dyslexia, including those who might be afflicted without knowing it. He feels thankful that his own parents took the initiative to help him discover and work through his problems, but worries about children who might not be as fortunate.
"I saw a teacher down in Ventura, about 60 years old, who was asked how many dyslexic students she had encountered during her career. She said she'd never met one," Giammanco says. "Well, if one in seven people are dyslexic, she probably encountered quite a few. And she probably saw those students as kids who weren't working hard enough, or kids who just didn't get it. I can't help but wonder where some of those kids are today."
- 12 to 15 percent of the U.S. population is dyslexic
- Approximately 30 million dyslexics are undiagnosed
- Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties. Forty percent of dyslexics read below the fourth-grade level ·
- Famous dyslexics include actor Tom Cruise, musician John Lennon, photographer Ansel Adams, artist Leonardo da Vinci, boxer Muhammad Ali, billionaire adventurer Richard Branson, filmmaker Walt Disney and inventor Thomas Edison