In his long career, Evanstein Montague has taught more than 1,000 teenagers to drive, coaxing them through three-point turns, guiding them down slippery driveways, turning sophomores with sweaty palms into virtuosos of parallel parking.
In his argyle tie, wire spectacles and no-nonsense lanyard, he can stare down a classroom of 35 juveniles in a hormone frenzy, some with fingernails painted turquoise, some with hair colored green or purple, all of them hungry for a set of car keys.
They tackle him in the hallways at Enloe High School, peppering him with questions, desperate for him to sign off on their budding adulthood. He calls them “little people,” and he guides them into a world of steel and rubber and gasoline with the stern benevolence of a farmer raising chicks.
“These little people are crazy,” he says with a sigh. “I thank God for parents who have put some listening skills in their children.”
But in the last year, Montague’s work has taken on a terrible new importance, and he approaches teaching with the grave wisdom of a parent who has answered the most dreaded telephone call.
In 2014, on Christmas Eve, he learned that his daughter Idoreyin Patience Montague died when her Subaru crashed in Baltimore, a fatal collision with an SUV. She was 30, a classically trained pianist, violinist and singer, a doctor in her second year as a resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a daughter who would call her father after his driver’s ed classes and joke, “Did anybody try to kill my Daddy today?”
Now in class, Montague endures videos with broken glass and twisted steel. He looks at the eyes staring back at him, eyes that will be looking through a windshield before the end of the year, and pictures a mother and father just like him. Some of his students ask about the obvious irony in his work.
But to Montague, it makes life-and-death sense to keep teaching even as he approaches 60. Every time he finishes a class, he turns his eye skyward and tells Idoreyin, “I got another one. I put another good one on the road.”
A Shaw University graduate, Montague raised a pair of daughters on his own, sometimes working three jobs – a trim and well-spoken man with a background in finance and the ministry. He stumbled into driver’s school during a stint as bicycle-riding security guard, where people commented on his uncommon rapport with teens. I spent a day with Montague on Thursday and watched him elbow his way through thousands of students, almost every one of whom hollered out to him eagerly whether engaged in an ROTC drill or ducking into the boys’ room.
He leads class like a showman, calling out students by name, gesturing with his handkerchief in his hand, kneading his forehead in frustration.
“What is open road driving?” he bellows to a reticent pupil. “Listen up. Hold on a minute. Why are you looking at that computer? Minimize that screen! Every time I come up here, what I’m presenting to you is something you need, that’s going to help you. You’re one of my favorite students. You know better! Now, what is open road driving? You can look on your paper! You took notes!”
Montague relishes the danger posed by a confused 15-year-old at the controls of 3,000-pound hunk of metal moving at 50 mph, knowing that if he can shepherd that lamb around a hairpin turn, through Beltline traffic, through a puddle, the world will gain a courteous, defensive driver instead of a texting, burger-eating menace.
“I’ve only had one accident,” he said, recalling the girl who hit the gas instead of the brake. “The car went airborne and split a telephone pole in half. The girl was in tears. The little boy in the back seat was waving his arms.”
He raised Idoreyin to reach the National Honor Society, to take the physics prize at Shaw, to crave the medical field so ardently that she took a crack-addicted patient home with her.
“I wish she had consulted with me before she did that!” says Montague, ever the cautious father.
When she died, so many letters of condolence poured in that he still hasn’t read them all, let alone responded. He forced himself to deliver her eulogy. He takes comfort in the scholarship that Hopkins offers in her name, and with her memory in mind, he refuses to collapse in grief. Rather than give in to the pain that consumed him, he went right back to work at Enloe.
“I’m doing what I’m doing because of her,” he said, “to make sure nobody, no other parents, have to feel what I felt. I cannot keep someone from hitting your son or daughter. But if they will follow what I say: Slow down when it’s raining, increase the following distance, put your windshield-wipers on, put your defroster on, do not even touch your cellphone, you will not be the person getting the call from the police.”
He wears his daughter’s fleece from Hopkins, the initials IPM embroidered on the sleeve. He compliments students when they wear an attractive shade of purple, Idoreyin’s favorite color. And he escorts little people into a dangerous world, one set of keys at a time.