My Thirteenth Winter is a gutsy memoir by Samantha Abeel, who grew up with the learning ability known as dyscalculia. In being a memoir, My Thirteenth Winter covers Abeel’s recollection of significant events from her childhood right through to her young adult years. This is both good and bad. On the downside, unless one is famous, it can difficult to capture reader interest page after page for what is essentially one person’s tale of their life. On the positive side, My Thirteenth Winter helped me in a way that few books to understand how learning disorders do not end with high school graduation but are lifetime struggles.
Abeel makes heart-wrenchingly clear in her introduction how momentous the impact her disability has been on her life: “I am twenty-five years old and I can’t tell time. I struggle with dialing phone numbers, counting money, balancing my checkbook, tipping at restaurants, following directions, understanding distances, and applying basic math to my everyday life. I also struggle with spelling and grammar and remembering combinations of movements in athletics and dance.” Subsequent chapters also exemplify how challenging dyscalculia can be. In second grade, despite seeing her teacher model time with a big clock, Abeel couldn’t understand how hours, minutes, and seconds worked. Nor could Abeel understand fractions, even after her teacher explained it by using a candy car. Perhaps, Abeel’s saddest story is about the time her teacher handed out worksheets with math problems and promised ice-cream to anyone who could finish them correctly and on time. Being a school teacher, I know how common these motivational rewards still are. The idea is if only all students try harder, practice more, or put in extra effort, everyone will pass. That day, Abeel was not only the last to finish, but no matter how hard she tried, she never could get all the problems right. Thankfully, her teacher took pity on her and let her join the class in eating ice-cream. Except Abeel only felt worse, because she knew that she had been unable to keep her part of the deal. As is clear from the quote I gave at the start, Abeel continued to find it a challenge throughout her whole academic life to learn those basic skills that most of us take for granted. Dyscalculia impacted other areas too, because it’s more about one’s ability to learn sequential skills than about one’s ability to calculate. For that reason, Abeel also struggled with grammar, reading, driving, and music.
Because of her learning disability, Abeel often felt frustrated, confused, and alone. Yet she actually had a benefit that many special education students don’t. According to a 1992 article, which appeared in the Learning Disabilities Association newsletter, some students can be gifted and disabled. “These students are struggling to stay at grade level. Their superior intellectual ability is working overtime to help compensate for weaknesses caused by an undiagnosed learning disability.” Abeel spent most of her academic years battling physical sickness caused by her anxiety over her lackluster school performance. As Abeel observed, however, she still remained one of the fortunate ones. Others who were only disabled and not gifted: “They had been ridiculed from an early age…. For the fact that they talked differently or they looked different or didn’t learn to read as quickly or answer questions in class. They were class clowns, behavior problems, because that way they were in charge of the laughter, they were in control of the inevitable criticism.” As bad of a struggle that Abeel had, imagine how much worst it was for others who couldn’t compensate for their weakness. The contrast is similar to the one I felt when struggling to fill out immigration papers to stay in the United States. As frustrating as a I found the whole process, at least I could speak English, knew North American culture, and had the ability to spend money on endless phone calls.
About halfway through her school years, Abeel qualified for special education. Immediately, she started being pulled to a resource room for small group support. Her reaction surprised me. It’s also one that those in power might take more heed to: “I looked around and I feel heartened by the realization that no one else in this room gets it either. That we all struggle with math and it’s OK…. Here, after all those years of fear and withdrawal, I can finally start raising my hand in class again.” More good news was to come. Abeel discovered an aptitude for writing. Her parents, peers, and teachers began to compliment her literary talent. Pieces of hers were published in the school paper and even in a national magazine that published student work. Writing not only served as an emotional outlet for her, but it also gave her a much-needed ego boost.
Although struggles with dyscalculia crippled her again in high school and college, Abeel’s disability has also blessed her with a unique view of the world. Through struggling to learn, Abeel has learned the power of persistence. People are often stronger than they realize. Abeel’s problem-solving skills have been stretched, in that she has never been able to take the simplest tasks for granted. Her years of learning to cope by observing the smallest facial gestures, emotional reactions, and patterns of behavior have helped Abeel develop observation skills. She uses these to reach out and help others. Last, Abeel has learned to see people as beautiful individuals waiting for their gifts to be recognized; to view everyone as learning disabled and gifted. My Thirteenth Winter is a powerful memoir.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
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