Her name was Florence Finnegan. Her mother was a nurse, passionate about her calling, who wanted to name her daughter after her idol, Florence Nightingale. All of the bedtime stories Florence heard growing up were about the brave nurse. And she was expected to demonstrate the same traits. Florence was never given a nickname. "Florence Nightingale didn't use a nickname" her mother scolded whenever Florence asked to be called something else, usually Mary. Florence knew this was not true, she knew Florence Nightingale was known as the Lady with the Lamp, but she didn't mention this to her mother because her mother hated know- it-alls. So she was just Florence. Not Flo or Florry.
Florence Finnegan was chubby, freckled, redheaded, and cursed with a farsightedness that required thick glasses that magnified her mud brown eyes enormously. She was not active or social, preferring to spend her time curled up on her bed, alone in her room with a book and her ginger cat, Spot. Florence Finnegan 's red hair wasn't the pretty red like Anne of Green Gables. It was carrot red and wiry curly. Her mother kept it plaited tightly to keep it under control. She stayed out of the sun as much as possible to avoid more freckles than she actually had or worse, a bright red sunburn that would clash with her hair. Florence Finnegan was eight years old and in Grade Three..
You would think that someone like Florence would be the object of bullying for all sorts of reasons. Her shyness, her weight, her hair colour, her freckles, even her name. But Florence was invisible. She had a force field around her that seemed to repel the bullies. A deep seated self possession, a strength that even at such a young age protected Florence by sending out a message that she would not be messed with. She had never had to prove herself to anyone. Because no one really noticed her. Hard as that is to believe. She was quiet and preferred her own company. It didn't bother her to be this way although sometimes she really longed to be liked.
Sometimes she wished she was like Kathy Hawkins. Florence was in love with Kathy Hawkins as was just about every other kid in her class. Kathy had long silky blond hair, clear ivory skin and sparkling blue eyes. She was everything Florence was not. Florence sometimes longed to be a person like that. She would imagine, alone at night in her bed, that if she died she would come back as Kathy Hawkins. It was silly she knew, as Kathy was already Kathy, not a lost soul waiting for a dead Florence to inhabit her body. At any rate, Florence never made her feelings known to Kathy. She was not the type of girl to curry favour from other people. Unlike her classmates, Florence didn't clamour for Kathy's attention at recess, bringing her flowers, offering her key positions in games. Florence preferred to worship her from afar. Her invisibility made it possible to be near Kathy without being noticed by her.
When I say Florence was invisible, obviously I am speaking metaphorically. She was visible of course. But people never thought of Florence. Valentine's were few in her little construction paper heart. She got Valentine's from classmates who's mothers insisted their children send one to everyone in the class. Her name took too long to write and didn't fit on Valentine's cards and birthday invitations. Because she was silent and self sufficient she didn't draw attention to herself. If Florence was in school in this day and age she might have been singled out as 'exceptional' or she might have drawn the attention of her teacher because she was too quiet and withdrawn. But back in those days, the quiet and meek flew under the radar.
Florence's life changed the day the teacher announced that the class would be forming a choir and would be performing at a music festival later in the year. Every child in the class would be required to be in this choir. Florence's heart leaped into her chest. A choir! Florence loved to sing. She sang every chance she got...when she was alone. Her mother had heard her once and told Florence not to show off. She was to be humble and modest. It was not right to be proud of her gifts. It was not right for her to be going around singing all the time. So she kept it quiet. But now, the teacher said they all had to sing. Surely her mother wouldn't mind her singing with a bunch of others. She decided to keep it to herself for as long as she could just in case her mother found a reason to have her removed from the choir.
The class was put into two sections. Soprano and Alto. All the high voices were sopranos and the low voices were altos. That was all the harmony the grade three classes were capable of. Florence watched as the teacher tested each student to see where they would fit. Typically, at their age, most of the children would be sopranos, but there were a few altos, mostly boys. Everyone had been chosen and placed when the teacher noticed Florence standing there.
"Florence! Come over here and let me hear you...." she said, distractedly arranging herself on the piano bench.
Florence walked slowly over. The rest of the class was talking amongst themselves and acting unruly they way children will when the teacher is occupied.
The teacher played the scale and Florence sang along. As the teacher played each note Florence's courage grew and she began to sing with more confidence. The teacher stopped playing and looked at Florence as if seeing her for the first time. Her classmates had grown quiet as Florence sang the notes of the scale, and then the next scale, and the next showing a range unheard of in a child so young.
"Florence, you are lucky enough to have a choice of soprano or alto. Which would you like to sing?" the teacher asked .
Florence was not used to being asked anything. No one had ever asked her preference for anything. She was at a loss. And then she looked at Kathy Hawkins sitting there in the soprano section.
"I would like to be a soprano" she said quietly. And she went over and stood beside Kathy who moved over to make room.
They began to sing the first song they would be learning. As the group sang in the cacophonous way of young children, one voice stood out. One voice sang the melody in a voice clear and sweet. She knew the song, she loved the song, she owned the song in her heart.
"Florence Finnegan! " the teacher exclaimed "You sing like a Nightingale!!"
Florence did not know what to do with this information. Florence the Nightingale?? Even at eight years old Florence could appreciate the irony of her situation.
From that day forward her classmates seemed to notice her a bit more. They seemed puzzled at first. Where had this child come from? How could such a beautiful sound come from....well, from Florence? But it did. Florence didn't become popular by any means. It wasn't something she wanted and she didn't encourage the attentions of her classmates and teachers. But for those moments when Florence sang, she imagined that she could be a Kathy, or a Susan, or a Karen.