Few writers understood childhood better than Charles Dickens. His vivid portrayals bring to life the wonder, joy, and the injustice felt by almost all children. Certainly, all children share common bonds related to adolescence and growing into adults. Yet, despite such generalities, some children are just different from the rest. Somehow they stand out from all others to form a class all by themselves. This page describes some of those children, identified here as Three Sigma Kids. More than a few of them went to Bonnie Brae Farm for Boys in the middle of the 20th century. Perhaps you knew one of them.
The term, “Three Sigma” means rare. More generally, it is a statistical term ordinarily used to define the outer (upper and lower) limits of a probability distribution (cf. Sigma). For example, we know that most human abilities vary widely among people. Thus, in any large group, driving ability, cooking ability, running ability, etc., range from very good to very poor. Likewise, Three Sigmas are kids who find themselves at the extremes, sometime for better, often for worse. Before going further, Three Sigma Kids is simply a term being used to identify a unique group of kids who found themselves growing up in a communal environment, and who most others just could not understand.
For whatever reason, each generation has its own children at risk. Children simply can not grow up by themselves, and prior to the 1850s children without caring homes suffered greatly. “The first American foundling hospital was St. Vincent's Infant Asylum in Baltimore. Roman Catholic nuns founded the asylum in 1856” (cf. Background). However, a few years prior, in “1853, a plan to rescue thousands of New York street children was announced by a new charity, the Children's Aid Society. It would send the children to live with families in rural America. By 1929, the Society had relocated over one hundred thousand orphaned, abandoned or neglected children” (cf. Transcripts). “Between 1854 and 1929, more than 100,000 children were sent, via orphan trains, to new homes in rural America.” These orphan trains exemplify all children at risk in each generation. Children at risk existed yesterday, exist today, and will exist tomorrow.
The boys at Bonnie Brae Farm did not consider it an orphanage, yet both shared a common connection—communal living where attention, guidance, and love, were rationed, more or typically less, in various ways. Almost all the boys at Bonnie Brae were at risk; not all of them were Three Sigmas.
J.D. Salinger's widely acclaimed 1951 novel, Catcher in the Rye tells the story of 16 year old Holden Caulfield who has just been expelled from his prep school. Holden, perhaps, is the most widely known example of a Three Sigma, and the story he recounts about the few days after he leaves school lingers in our hearts and minds long after we turn the last page. Like Holden, Three Sigmas know loneliness and the endless feeling of somehow being detached, yet often go to great lengths to hide such feelings. It's not that they don't make friends, but rather friendships seldom survive. Ironically, often, they can be seen as popular in some circles. Mostly, friendships end when one of them moves away. And Three Sigmas tend to be free spirits, not easily bent into the molds that adults like to form for children. Consequently, too often they are seen as troublemakers, when all they intended was some space or harmless fun. Likewise, they do not display their intelligence, and because they have quick wits, frequently they get accused of, or blamed for, not taking things seriously.
The greatest characteristics of Three Sigmas are their loyalty, honesty, sense of fair play (what is right), and sadly, their persistent willingness to combine all three. Most kids mainly "go along to get along," or at least pretend to. Not Three Sigmas. What they dislike most is the phonyness they encounter almost everywhere. Yet, if there is one person they can trust, most of the rest can be endured. Moreover, Three Sigmas tend to be survivors. They survive, but not necessarily well because inherently life is unfair, which can lead to their more negative side. When they push the envelope it is based, not so much in failings like cruelty or meanness, but rather, like Holden, on the way life should be as they understand it. At such times, they may strike back in thought, word, or deed, when things go too wrong. And through it all, they continue their endless search for something they cannot understand, much less explain to others. Most Three Sigmas eventually come to identify with the popular Robert Frost poem titled, “The Road Not Taken.” It ends:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Does this account of Three Sigma Kids have a purpose? In a word, yes. Because children at risk is perennial, a never ending saga for all generations, we, each of us who reads this page, should do something positive to minimize the failure rate for such children. Find others who share your ideas about what needs to be done or can be done, and then plan your first step. As the sage put it, The journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step.
Notes & Recommended Resources:
- Bonnie Brae Alumni homepage.
- Selected quotes about children.
- Father Flanagan's Boys Town opened in 1917 as a residential facility for boys, and developed a "long history of offering help, hope and healing to abused, abandoned, neglected, handicapped or otherwise troubled children."
- Frost, Robert. (1915). A useful resource page, as well as his two most popular poems.
- Keay, Ike. (1989). Child Of Pain Children Of Joy - The Dramatic Story of How God is Working Through One Man's Turbulent Past to Heal the Wounds of Abused Children, Revell 1989, foreward by Pat Boone - b/w photos.
- McQueen, Steve. Steve, considered an example of Three Sigma Kids, attended the Boys Republic residential High School. Information.
- Orphan Trains: Bibliography, Book, Information, Transcript, and the excellent PBS Video.
- Orphanages: Although we did not consider Bonnie Brae an orphanage, there were similarities. Here is an orphanage background, their alumni, and a list of known orphanages.
- Salinger, Jerome D. The Catcher in the Rye, and some comments.
- Sigma: Here is a graphical explanation of the sigma concept.
- Violence in America is a wide personal perspective about how too many children are becoming victims. It offers suggestions.