What if every day brought personal challenges that everyone around you grasped easily? You lag further behind. You feel anxious, self conscious almost constantly. Imagine years of this. This was Samantha Abeel’s life for thirteen years. For thirteen years, she had no idea what was wrong with her. Why she couldn’t grasp the seemingly simple mathematical concepts that her classmates picked up comparatively easily. By the time she was diagnosed with dyscalculia, she was years behind and suffering from daily anxiety induced stomach-aches.
I had never heard of dyscalculia until I was assigned to review Robert Cimera’s Learning Disabilities: What Are They? for Library Journal a few years ago. I was surprised to learn that dyslexia had a mathematical counterpart, and Cimera’s book was full of valuable information for parents and teachers about ways to help kids with learning disabilities be successful. I learned a lot, but My Thirteenth Winter made it all real.
Samantha’s story takes us from the beginning of her education through college. We are there for the frustration of trying to learn what just won’t make sense to her and also for the elation of finding her identity in writing and poetry. We also see the loneliness of college life and the overwhelming academic hurdles. Throughout it all, she had support, and she comes to accept herself as she is without allowing her disability to hold her back.
I highly recommend this slim memoir to anyone with an LD or those who work with those who do. In addition to being an inspiring story, this is also an inside look at special education. Teachers who want another perspective will want to start here. And perhaps move on, as I did, to Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal by Jonathan Mooney, in which a man who grew up in special ed with various labels attached to his file explores his and others’ lives outside the mainstream. I’d been interested in this book since it first came out. I actually wrote a blurb about it for the catalog of the company for which I used to work. But I didn’t around to reading it until recently.
This memoir is about more than just Jonathan’s life or even the lives of the people he visits. It’s a real exploration of identity. The labels we take on and the ones we have imposed on us. He starts with learning disabilities, but he talks to a girl who is deaf-blind, another who has Down Syndrome. He even talks to a FtM transgendered individual. It’s a fascinating story that would make a great discussion starter for teens or adults.