Guest speaker: Tester visits students to talk about overcoming challenges

Ravalli Republic

by Perry Backus

Ethan MacPherson was born missing three fingers on his left hand.

As a relatively new student at Hamilton’s Washington Elementary, he’d run the normal course of answering all sorts of questions from his classmates about that subject.

“He was kind of struggling with all the questions,” said his mother, Amber Mattern.

The 7-year-old knows firsthand the challenges of being different.

On Friday morning, another person with missing fingers came to MacPherson’s class to let him know that it doesn’t mean that he can’t dream big.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester made the trip to Hamilton specifically to talk face to face with the youngster and his classmates.

“I wasn’t much older than you guys when I lost these in a meat grinder,” Tester told Jeanette Gray’s first grade class. “It doesn’t change who you are. You just go with it.”

Tester read the class a book and answered a few questions from the youngsters, including how do you hold that book without fingers.

“You just do it,” Tester said.

And when he was done visiting with the class, the senator had young MacPherson escort him to door.

On the way there, the two sat down in the hallway and on a small desk placed their hands side by side.

With a smile on his face, Tester looked straight into Ethan’s eyes and told the youngster that his disability doesn’t change a thing about where his life might take him.

Tester told the boy that while he might not be able to dribble quite as well in a certain direction on the basketball court or play the clarinet, but those are all small things compared to what could be.

“I told him the truth is that it shouldn’t be looked on as a detriment,” Tester said afterwards. “I told him that he can be anything that he wants to be.”

Coming for a U.S. senator, Ethan’s mom said that means a lot.

“It means that he’s not alone,” she said, after Tester left the building. “Ethan can see that this doesn’t have to hold him back. He can see just how far that he (Tester) has gone despite the fact that he is missing fingers, too.”

The idea of asking the senator to come talk with the first-grader began with an advertisement during the recent political season that poked fun of an apparently doctored photo that showed Tester with fingers on his right hand.

The school’s secretary, Janelle Hansen, had recently moved to Montana from Seattle and didn’t know that Tester was missing fingers until she saw that advertisement.

She did know that Ethan was having a bit of hard time adjusting to his new class.

“The light bulb went off and after talking to his teacher, I decided to see if we could get this going,” she said.

Hansen sent an email to Tester’s office and received a positive response. Initially, it appeared like it might be a few weeks before the senator would be nearby, but things changed and the appointment was made for Friday morning.

After the class visit, Ethan’s teacher said she couldn’t imagine a better way to provide this kind of lesson to her young students.

“Oh my gosh, it’s such a huge life lesson,” Gray said. “Despite the fact of his missing fingers, look how far he’s been able to go. It just shows Ethan that it doesn’t have to hinder him in any way.

“I feel like this day could be life changing for him,” she said.

With a smile on her face, Ethan’s mother nods in agreement.

“I think he feels like a rock star today,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

Like most 7-year-olds, Ethan’s response to a reporter’s question about how he felt about the senator’s visit was short and to the point.

“It’s cool,” he said, after thinking about it for a moment. “It’s very cool.”