For Benjamin

This is a story I wrote for my adopted son, Ben, who had (has), shall we say, a small problem with impetuosity and anger management. He was about 6 years old when I wrote it.

Once upon a time there was a young dragon whose name was Benjamin. By some trick of nature, Benjamin lived with a human family and went to a human school. But nobody minded because Benjamin was a loving and loveable little dragon in almost every way. Almost, because Benjamin had one tiny little fault. He was impetuous, never stopping to think before rushing into every new exciting thing his day brought him. Now, in a human child this would not have been a problem at all. A few bumps, bruises and scrapes would have taught Benjamin to slow down and think soon enough. But everyone knows that dragons have a thick scaly skin, so bumps and scrapes didn’t bother Benjamin a bit. Most of the time, he didn’t even notice them. More importantly, though, everyone knows that there is a huge burning difference between dragons and humans. Dragons breathe fire! Every time a little dragon gets angry or upset or plain overexcited, flames and smoke shoot out of his mouth and nose, just like you or I might sneeze. And because Benjamin was such an impetuous little dragon, he could never remember to control those strong feelings that caused him to spurt flames. Not until it was too late, anyway.

In a dragon family this is not considered a big mistake. It gets a “bless you”, just as our sneeze might, and a little frown from Mummy Dragon, just as you or I might do if we forgot to hide our sneezes behind a tissue. But in a human household, Benjamin’s dragon sneezes were a real, a BIG, problem. All the walls and carpets had been scorched by Benjamin’s little lapses of self-control, and Benjamin’s human mummy and daddy were at their wits end. Even though they loved their little dragon so much, sometimes it was hard not to begrudge the expense, the wear and tear on their nerves, and the strain on relationships with friends and family.

One morning, Mum woke Benjamin as usual so that he could get ready for school. But Benjamin had stayed up late, sneakily watching television through the door to the lounge when his parents had thought him long asleep. What’s more, it had been an action-filled grown-up film that had given Benjamin nightmares. So Benjamin was a very tired, a very grumpy, little dragon. Just like with all children, that grew into tired grumpy tantrums as soon as Mum and Dad chivvied him crossly to hurry up and make his bed, eat his breakfast, gather his schoolbooks. He even forgot to brush his teeth, and that was a big problem for Benjamin. The sharp minty taste of his toothpaste was the only thing that cooled Benjamin’s flames enough to allow him to sit in a school classroom without turning the desks and his schoolmates into so many sad little heaps of charcoal and ash.

The morning was not a good one. By the time Benjamin was ready for school, Dad was even grumpier than his little dragon boy and Mum was in tears. They drove to school in stony silence – which was just as well because Dad had filled up with petrol the night before and one impetuous burst of flame from Benjamin may well have sent them all sky-high. At the school, Mum and Dad were still so cross that they wouldn’t kiss poor Benjamin goodbye. “Just hurry up and get to class,” Dad growled. “You’re already late and I need to take your mother to the hairdresser so that we can have this morning’s scorch marks repaired.”

Indeed, the smell of scorched hair in the car was making Benjamin’s throat and nose rather itchy. He clambered out of the car and dragged himself off sadly in the direction of his classroom.

“Benjamin, you’re late!” called his teacher irritably above the noise of the other children, as the little dragon tried to slink unnoticed to his desk at the back of the classroom, next to the big sink where the children washed their paintbrushes and where Benjamin was supposed to douse his flames.

At once, Benjamin’s quick temper flared impetuously. He’d had a bad night and a bad morning. His Mum and Dad were angry with him for burning things, and now his teacher was shouting at him, too. It was not his fault he was a dragon! “I can’t help it!” he yelled in frustration. Or rather, he started to yell, because as he opened his toothy mouth and bellowed out the first words, a huge ball of flame shot out and scorched its way through desks and chairs, children scattering screaming in every direction. Luckily his teacher could move quickly. He leapt out of the way just in time to avoid the flame ball, which crashed into the blackboard and cracklingly reduced it to ashes. Benjamin clamped his mouth shut in embarrassment. All his usually greenish scales blushed a deep red, right to the very tips of his wings. He stared down at the tiled floor of the classroom and wanted to disappear.

The shocked silence of the smouldering classroom was shattered by his teacher’s angry roar. “Get out! Get out of my classroom and don’t come back until you can stop destroying everything around you. Out!”

Poor little Benjamin’s head sank almost to the ground as he slunk out of the classroom, out of the school and slowly walked the long way home. When he reached home, however, he found the door locked. His parents were still out. After such a morning, who knew if they’d ever come back? Sadly, Benjamin flung his school bag under the garden table and let himself down on the doorstep. Huge tears rolled down his scaly face, making paths through the sootiness there. If you thought crocodile tears were big, you should see the tears of a heartbroken little dragon! They dripped onto a green leafy plant in the pots of herbs that Mum had planted by the front door.

Absentmindedly, Benjamin picked a sprig of the leaves and began to chew on them. They tasted good, a bit like the toothpaste he’d forgotten that morning. Enjoying the taste, Benjamin picked and chomped greedily on another and yet another sprig of the plant he didn’t realise was mint. With each vanishing sprig he became more anxious, though. Where were Mum and Dad? Surely, surely they wouldn’t leave him all alone? Just as he was reaching for the last few cowering leaves of the mint bush, a car pulled up the drive. Benjamin leapt up, his anxiety forgotten as the doors opened and Mum and Dad clambered out. “Mum, Dad,” he yelled happily.

As soon as they heard his enthusiasm, his parents ducked nervously behind the car doors, fearful of what this new burst of impetuosity might bring. But instead of a rush of flame, out of Benjamin’s mouth popped … a stream of peppermints! Mum and Dad stared in astonishment, and then burst out laughing. There were hugs and kisses, and then Benjamin’s parents drove him back to school.  Benjamin was very scared that his teacher would be angry, but his parents were firm. “You can’t hide at home. You need to be at school.”

So for the second time that morning, Benjamin tiptoed into his classroom and edged towards his desk. There was such a noise of chattering children and the poor teacher was so engrossed in trying to shout his lesson above the waves of noise and movement, that Benjamin had almost reached it and had begun to relax when …

“Benjamin, I thought I told you to go home. Haven’t you done enough damage for one day?”

Hot anger sprang up in the little dragon’s chest again. The fire was not his fault! He opened his mouth to retort and a sudden hush descended as children ducked fearfully beneath their desks or cowered against the walls. Yet once again, instead of flames, out streamed a clattering cascade of … peppermints. With a skidding, slithering and grabbing, all the children of the class scrabbled for the sweets. With their mouths and hands stuffed full, they finally settled quietly in their seats. With a deep sigh of relief, the teacher finally managed to get his lesson underway.

Benjamin sat, staring dreamily out of the window, still chewing on that last sprig of mint. He heard almost nothing of the lesson. In his mind he saw those peppermints over and over again, bouncing and rolling over the floor. No flames! For the first time in a long time he was truly happy.

Since that day, Benjamin always carries a little bag of mint with him. Most of the time it is his reminder to control his quick, dragon-size feelings. But on those occasions when he knows the feelings are about to explode, he now always manages to pause just long enough to pop a sprig of mint in his mouth first.