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.