First-graders grill Sen. Tester

Helena Independent Record

by Sanjay Talwani

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester took questions from Helena residents Tuesday, and not one of them dealt with the budget deficit, the recent elections or health care reform.

Tester, accompanied by his wife, daughter and a couple of grandchildren, read books to two classes at Four Georgians Elementary School and offered insights on Washington, D.C., the political system and his job in Congress.

The questions came fast, and the senator was prepared.

“How do you get to Washington?”

In a plane, was the answer.

“What kind of plane?”

A jet, seating about 100 people, that stops in Minnesota on the way.

“How nice is Barack Obama?”

He’s nice; Tester said he’s met the president a few times.

And, “How did you lose your fingers?”

At age 9, in a meat grinder. (Tester is missing three fingers on his left hand.)

“Did it hurt?”


“How many bills do you have to pay?”

After realizing the child seemed to be referring to passing bills, Tester said he’s passed more than you can count on your fingers and toes — 20, for most people.

“How far is it from the White House to the Washington Monument?”

About the distance from Four Georgians to the McDonald’s on North Montana Avenue.

“How many steps are there in the Washington Monument?”

Tester conceded he’d never been there because of the always-long line. But his wife, Sharla, reported that the elevator ride takes 70 seconds and there are eight windows at the top, with great views of the area including parts of Virginia and Maryland.

“Do you have any brothers and sisters?”

Yes, two older brothers.

“How old are you?”


“Can a tiger be president? Can a duck be president?”


“Can a teacher be president?”

“I know your teacher and she’d be a very good president,” Tester said.

The teacher, Melody Wall, said the Testers took her into their household when she recently graduated from high school and needed family support. “I consider them my mom and dad,” she said.

Some students asked more about Tester’s job, and how he got it. He explained that we live in a democracy, and he got the most votes in an election. Members of Congress think of laws to write, then vote on them in small groups and then again in the full House and full Senate before sending them to the president for his signature.

And laws are needed, he said, because not everybody’s an angel.

Tester also read “Clifford Goes to Washington,” in which the various monuments, a group of demonstrators and the White House make cameo appearances. The big red dog ends up being chased by Secret Service agents on the White House lawn.

“The people of Washington, D.C., aren’t used to having a big dog around,” Tester said.

In the book, the first lady saves Clifford.

“She said we need people to be more like Clifford,” Tester read from the book. “She said we need people to be nicer to each other.”

He also visited the first-grade class of Anise Rask — the class of his granddaughter Kilikina Schultz.

There, he read “My Teacher for President,” in which the teacher’s skills are matched to the job of president. In the book, the teacher likes white houses; is used to being followed around; signs important papers; thinks health care is important; likes to go on trips; and finds jobs for people.

Tester, who was elected to the Senate in 2006, taught music for two years in elementary school in Big Sandy in his 20s.