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Pine Trees Never Doubt the Authenticity of Their Piney-ness

By Dr. Karen Arnstein.

It has only been a year since my last Director’s Corner, but it feels like ten years have passed. How can a lifetime occur in a year? We emerged from the pandemic, I accepted a tenure-track position with a university, and my future seemed ready for the taking. I was busy fulfilling the responsibilities and obligations of being an officer for SENG, working as a university professor in another state, being a wife, maintaining friendships, and parenting a gifted teenager. No matter how many hours I worked, I felt inadequate and unprepared. I was always missing some vital detail and falling behind. Somehow, I got everything I wanted through hard work and luck, but why wasn’t I happy? That shiny gold star was pasted next to my name, but I felt like a failure. Like becoming a parent, we grow into our roles over time, and I expected the same with my new position as a professor. I loved the interaction, the intellectual stimulation, the campus energy, and mentoring of students, yet something wasn’t right.

In November of 2021, I attended the NAGC conference, where I presented my doctoral research. After almost two years of virtual classes, meetings, and virtual graduation, I was surrounded by people I admired for their dedication and work to gifted and talented education. I was abuzz with the energy and possibilities for the future and how I could contribute to the field. I vowed never to lose focus on why I started this journey and to use my gifts and energy to help others and improve children’s lives. That weekend was reaffirming, but I had to put it aside to go back to updating syllabi, navigating departmental politics, and finding scraps of time for my family.

You don’t realize what you have until you no longer have it. This past year and my separation from the gifted community provided that stark contrast. Sure, I was making it work between all the commitments to family, work, and service, but I was lonely and disconnected. After the school year ended, I met with my advisor and colleagues to figure it out. The thought of hopping back on the hamster wheel to chase the shiny object filled me with dread. I wanted to keep writing, collaborating, and speaking about my conceptual work – those activities gave me energy and hope. After dropping off my son at Yunasa summer camp, a friend and fellow mother said, “Karen, anyone can teach students to be teachers, but not everyone can do what you do. The work we do now is not for our children… it’s for their children.” As we walked through that dusty mountain parking lot, I stopped mid-step with the profound simplicity of it all. She was right. What was I doing? Just because I CAN do something doesn’t mean I HAVE to do it.

That epiphany sucked the air out of my lungs. It was as obvious as the pine trees all around me. Pine trees never doubt the authenticity of their piney-ness. Mountain streams never doubt their wateriness. Nature never tries to do something it was not intended to do; she is the most authentic creature alive and all around us. Why did I not see this before? My connections to SENG and the gifted community through friendships, collaboration, work, and laughter brought me back to my center again. Through this community built over the years, I felt safe to express my doubts about the “dream job” without judgment or criticism. Gifted and twice-exceptional kids have those same doubts about decisions made or those they are about to make, and they, too, deserve a community where they can feel safe enough to express themselves without fear of judgment. Unfortunately, many states no longer provide gifted programming so students can “find each other” and build this community. Over time, they develop into anxious, self-doubting adults. I know because I was one of them.

After a year of working in the non-gifted world, I realized I had set aside parts of myself to fit in. I had to set aside my research interests, tone down my sarcastic sense of humor, and fly my “nerd flag” a little lower. This was a year of learning what it meant to be authentic. I am not interested in creating competition where there is no need for it. I prefer setting aside egos and finding consensus. I love working in the gifted and talented field in whatever capacity I am needed. I love that our community cheers each other on for our successes. I love that after a year away, I was received with warmth and welcomed back. So, this is community. I like it.


Dr. Arnstein is a core faculty member at Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity in Education. She received her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction for the Gifted from the University of Denver. Her research examined the developmental transitions of twice-exceptional students. Karen is a speaker and author dedicated to supporting twice-exceptional learners. She is the co-founder and Director of Technology at Sierra Gifted Educational Services, a non-profit dedicated to helping gifted and twice-exceptional families. Her involvement with SENG began when her son was five, and she is now discovering new challenges in parenting a gifted teenager. She currently serves as Secretary on the Board of Directors and is Co-Chair of the Research Committee for SENG.

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