Book Review: “My Thirteenth Winter” by Samantha Abeel

My Thirteenth Winter is a riveting memoir based on the challenges the author, Samantha Abeel, faces as she grows up with a learning disability.  This heart-wrenching yet light-hearted story at times is life-changing.  Abeel, making herself vulnerable by revealing all of her thoughts and feelings, invites all of the readers in to get a sense of the daily struggles and hardships that accompany a learning disability.  While reading My Thirteenth Winter we have the chance to ‘grow up’ with her.  We see Abeel as a bright, intelligent kindergartner who is excelling academically.  From there we see the struggles emerge as she begins elementary school and begins math.  We are able to endure her struggles in math and grammar along side of her while seeing her excel in creative writing and history.

Abeel constantly intrigues and reels in the reader.  She describes everything with such vivid detail that it is impossible not to feel as if you are there struggling and triumphing along side of her.  For example, in the beginning of the book when Abeel is in second grade, she has to participate in show-and-tell.  She decides to bring in a paper bag and then as the class waits in suspense to see what is inside of the bag, she acts as if the bag is heavy and then proceeds to pull out her imaginary dragon.  Abeel uses great detail to explain where the dragon is flying and what he is doing.  It makes you feel as if you are in that second grade classroom as one of her peers listening to her describes the whereabouts and actions of her ‘pet’.  Her descriptions of how she feels when she has her ‘panic attacks’ is impeccable, again it feels as if you are experiencing it with her.  Not only to you experience her side of the story but she also describes her family’s feelings and how they are coping with everything.  It is impossible to not rejoice when they rejoice and grieve when they grieve.  Abeel makes you feel as if you are living life with her.   When she is describing her learning disability and the struggles that accompanied the diagnosing of it and the struggles she faced while in school, your heart aches for her.  However, it is such a relief knowing that she has a diagnosis and that means that help can be sought.  Throughout high school and college her frustrations with being accepted and the anxiety that accompanies everyday life is devastating.  As you read the book, it is as if you are searching for answers as she tries to, and eventually does.

The testing process was the most frustrating part of the book.   You feel for her and you are trying to understand the problems that she describes, but at the same time you put yourself in the teacher’s shoes’ who sees a brilliant student who is excelling in every subject except math.  What is the appropriate response? Apparently she is not in need of solely special education classes, but is it okay to seek special education in just one area? This takes years of struggle and hardship to decide.  Her learning disability was so hard to diagnose because here you have a girl who is scoring above the 90th percentile in some areas of her standardized tests and around the 5th percentile in the math area of her test.  She obviously isn’t in need of too much help.  It is hard to justify sending her to special education classes and devising and IEP when her other score as so remarkable.   Finally in junior high, an IEP (individualized education program) is devised for Abeel.  She is moved out of her regular 8th grade algebra class into a special education math class.  She is overjoyed that she will not have to struggle and dread going to math class anymore.  Abeel finally looks forward to going to school and actually begins to enjoy it.  She no longer is constantly stressed or anxious when it comes to academics. Although it was such a relief to receive answers and be able to help her cope with her learning disability, I am sure everyone involved was asking the question, ‘why did it take so long?’  If an intervention based model was used, it would have probably been produced a quicker diagnosis.  The standardized testing is not geared toward helping the students with learning disabilities; it is rather used for just knowing where a student stands in comparison to all other students at the same grade level.  If an intervention based model was used, the whole focus would have been on figuring out the problem and how to fix it.  It would have allowed for sooner intervention.

Although Abeel’s feelings of anxiety and panic attacks seemed to subside during her first semester of college, she was still experiencing them.  During her second semester of college, they began to be much more intense and debilitating.  Once again, her social life began to diminish until it got to the point where she was never going out and making all kinds of excuses just as it had been in high school.  She constantly found new reasons to stay back, whether it be that she needed to study or she was too tired.  Abeel’s school offered a study abroad program that many of her friends chose to partake in, finally after much debate and with strong feelings of hesitancy, she decided to study abroad.  She chose to go to an English-speaking area of Israel so that there would not be too much of a language barrier.  Although the beginning of the semester was filled with some anxiety and feelings of homesickness, she ended up finding her groove and was able to travel and get to know people. During her college experience, Abeel was diagnosed with depression.  After switching medications a few times after the initial diagnosis, she found one that really worked and created a chemical balance in her brain.  This was such a great relief and it helped to drastically improve her life.  With the help of this medication, her college experiences, and help from a counselor, Abeel was able to find a balance in her life that helped her cope with her learning disability.  She was able to realize that she did have a learning disability and that that will never go away, and that the only thing that she can do is learn to cope with it.

In this book, Abeel does a remarkable job at making it as realistic as possible for the reader.  She draws the reader in and allows him/her to feel the emotions along side of her.  Also Abeel’s writing is impeccable.  Her poems and specific events that she mentions make this story so real.  It is so vivid that it makes it possible to imagine the scenario that she is describing.  This book should definitely be read by all who have struggled with a learning disability as well as teachers ‘to be’.  It gives a great insight into what to look for in students who are struggling and the most effective ways to go about helping them.  It also goes to show that students who may appear as brilliant in all areas can struggle and that the issues need to be addressed.  It is so much better to diagnose a learning disability early in grade school rather than later so that way students do not have to struggle, be embarrassed, or have feelings of anxiety.  Teachers ‘to be’ who read this book will be able to prevent these feelings of embarrassment and anxiety that accompany students who have learning disabilities by diagnosing and getting them the help they need early enough in school.

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Why Special Education?

Why Special Education?

I could answer this question in one simple statement: Divine Providence.

As tacky as it seems, I feel like special education chose me.  Now you’re probably thinking this is just going to be a tacky story about how everything was just handed to me along the way and everything pointed me in the direction of my current profession.  I wish it were this simple because it would’ve saved me lots of tears, questioning of my choices and decisions, and many moments of feeling completely lost and confused.

Growing up, I had absolutely no doubt I would end up in the medical field.  If you would have asked me throughout my schooling years what I would be when I grew up, you would have received one of two responses: a neonatologist or a pediatrician.  And if you asked 8 year old me what a neonatologist was, I would give you a lengthy job description and then go on to explain some of the issues that newborn and preemies face and how they could be fixed.  Once I hit high school and the years leading up to college, I was still planning on going into the medical field but was considering other options, such as being a nurse practitioner.  Fast forward to freshman year of college, there I was as a nursing major taking lots of really fun and great classes such as chemistry, anatomy, labs, and sociology.  Sitting in these classes, I was completely disinterested and could not see myself continuing down this path.  After one semester, I sat down with my mom and shed many, many tears and broke the news that the nursing path was not for me.  So, in all of my confusion, I told her my next plan: to be a theology and social work major and open a special needs orphanage in Africa.  Sounds great, right?!?! That is still secretly my dream! Yet, the practical wisdom of a mother kicked in and she questioned my choices and said I could still do that, but what if I chose a more practical major.  That led me to early childhood education.  I threw around the idea of doing special education, too, but it was not the most practical idea and would add a year of schooling to my undergraduate. I started my education classes and fell in love with two of my professor, one was new and taught general education and the other taught special education.  Both of them opened my eyes to the world of education and the joy that can come in enabling and empowering students.  If you would have told me a year before ending up in these classes, I would laugh at you. While some may just say I changed majors, I call it Divine Providence.  Little did I know how much of an impact a change of major would have on my life.

I continued my education and stuck to my major throughout college and was very much interested in working with children with special needs.  The summer before my junior year of college I decided to get some more experience to figure out if it was what I really wanted to do.  I applied and interviewed for an Easter Seals camp in the middle-of-nowhere Illinois and was was offered the job on my phone interview.  Call it seeking opportunities or expanding horizons, again I call it Divine Providence.  The camp was one of the most rewarding, fulfilling, yet challenging times of my life.  It was simply exhausting, yet seeing the children and adults get to things that they would never have the chance to do, such as horseback riding, rock-climbing, and boating, was simply a joy.  They had the biggest smiles and the most sincere laughs and you could tell it was the best week of the year.  It was so hard leaving, but I left knowing where I was called.

Coming back from camp, I began to seriously consider all of my paths for post-college. I stumbled across this magazine in the student center of my university that had a list of all sorts of service programs.  I took the magazine and read through it a handful of times, circling and highlighting anything that jumped out at me.  Somehow I knew that my post-college time would be spent in one of those programs.  I was really drawn to the programs that included a master’s degree because I knew eventually I would need one.  I was intrigued by the UCCE (University Catholic Consortium of Education) programs that are modeled after the teaching program ACE program at Notre Dame.  The program consists of community living, earning a master’s degree, and working in a Catholic school.  It seemed like a no-brainer to me.  I began looking at all of the programs around the country and was hoping to stay close-ish to home and I wanted a master’s degree in special education.  Through narrowing my search, only one program met all of my criteria, Operation TEACHat Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore.  It was a no-brainer for me and call me dumb, but I put all of my eggs in one basket.  I applied, got through round one of the interviews which was over the phone, and then showed up for my interviews with the schools.  I was accepted conditionally into the program, contingent on getting an offer from the school.  Sure enough, this early childhood education major was placed in a position teaching middle school language arts and religion at a school with an emphasis on gifted education.

My time in Operation TEACH was invaluable.  I earned two years of teaching experience, wonderful friends, a master’s degree, and countless life lessons.  I learned so much about myself and my aspirations and dreams.  At my school, I had the opportunity both years to teach students considered lower academically.  These students were my favorite to teach.  It was so much more exhilarating and exciting planning lessons because I had to make them that much more engaging for the students to pay attention and when the students finally grasped material, even the smallest of concepts, there was a need for great jubilation.  Whereas teaching the more advanced students, I could give them the most boring lessons with complex work and activities, and I could bank on them doing it and doing it well.  With graduation quickly approaching and contracts for my job going out, I had to decide whether or not I was going to stay.  I enjoyed my job and loved my life in Baltimore, and had every intention of staying up until about two weeks before I had to make my final decision.  There was just this constant feeling that I couldn’t shake that was just leading me to leave.  I had applied for countless jobs with no success because I was being quite picky.  I finally decided to reach out to a teacher I knew in a Catholic school in my family’s town.  I got in contact with the principal and she wanted to interview me.  I was thrilled! I cancelled a trip to visit a friend and booked a bus home instead.  The interview went well but I was hesitant because it was a preschool position and that did not sound appealing, but I had already turned down my current job for the following year so I’d take anything at this point.  After moving home, I found out I was not offered the preschool position.  I was devastated because I had nothing else.  Again more tears flowed, but again my two favorite words (Divine Providence) came into play even though I didn’t know why. About three weeks after finding out I did not receive the position, the principal contacted me again regarding a first grade position.  I went in and interviewed a second time and as I was leaving, she asked me if I would be interested in special education.  I tried to keep my calm and it took everything in me not to just jump and say “yes,yes,yes, a thousand times yes!”.  Again, Divine Providence.  A few weeks later, I was offered a position as an Intervention Specialist and almost a year after being offered the position, I am still trying to keep my calm and excitement bottled in, because I truly think I have the world’s greatest job and there is nothing else I’d rather be doing right now.  Divine Providence.