Once upon a time there lived a princess (let’s call her Princess K), a fourteen-year-old beset by a dragon. It was the Dragon of Shyness, so fearsome that Princess K hid away and rarely spoke, except to her family and a few close friends.
Along came a knight, Sir B, an Englishman, short of stature and somewhat short of hair. His armor was thick, made as it was of his own bombast, pedantry, punctiliousness and sarcasm. A sign above his door declared him to be ‘The Couth-Maker’. It was to him that all the ‘uncouth’ princes and princesses were sent.
Though much respected by his peers, the youth of the castle feared and loathed Sir B. All, that is, except Princess K. She loved him. Not the silly, infatuated kind of love common to teenage girls, but the same sort of love she had for her father, as a mentor and guide. For Princess K discovered something about Sir B that the others did not know. Underneath that hard bombast and sarcasm was a gentle, funny and very kind man.
Sir B was not known to give compliments lightly. He could tear someone's ego to shreds with eloquence, but he was not so generous with praise. One day he discovered Princess K in her usual place, hiding in a corner, drawing pictures. He asked to look at them. He said they were very good and that she should one day have them published. Princess K just shrugged shyly as she always did.
At this Sir B became angry. “If I say your pictures are good, then they are good. I don’t lie!”
After that Sir B often asked Princess K to draw him pictures. He always praised them and paid her for them – the first time anyone had ever thought her work to be worth paying for. Little by little she came out of the cave she had been hiding in, for under Sir B's protection, the dragon diminished in size.
As she got to know him, Princess K began to understand the way Sir B spoke. The other princes and princesses thought her very strange because she laughed when Sir B seemed to be insulting her. But she knew when he said “I have taught this girl everything I know, and she still knows absolutely nothing!” that the joke was actually on him. Maybe it was because Sir B and she had travelled from the same distant land that she understood his language better, but the others were flummoxed by it and considered him harsh.
At last, it came time for the Princes and Princesses to leave the castle. Princess K was still only sixteen, a year younger than the others, and needed a job to keep her at home until she was old enough to go to the bigger castle in the city. But the town had very few jobs for the local youth. Again Sir B came to the rescue, persuading the senior Scientific Knight that she could work in the castle’s laboratory, despite her lack of science knowledge (apart from the biology he had taught her). So it came to pass that she spent another wonderful year at the castle with Sir B and his equally kind wife, who also worked in the laboratory. She became adept at making cups of coffee, cleaning rat cages and reproducing test papers.
When it came time to leave, Sir B wrote her a beautiful letter. Princess K still has it. She will never forget his kindness. Family and friends can tell someone they have worth and it has no effect, because they may be saying it out of obligation. When someone like Sir B gives praise, it has a special magic. Somehow, I think he knew that.