Moses, whose life story is depicted on a bulletin board in Marion Strishock’s classroom at Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, would probably have approved of an exercise that she assigned to her sixth graders on a recent afternoon. The middle school religion teacher asked them to write each of the 10 Commandments in a positive way, without using words like “no,” “don’t,” “can’t,” or “never,” and offer a couple of examples of how they can live out the commandments in their everyday life.
She later explained that the assignment was meant to show them that God’s laws, like the rules at the school, were put in place out of love for them. “People try to teach you right and wrong because they love you,” she said. “…Jesus was trying to stress love in the law.”
Earlier in January, Strishock – who has taught at Mary of Nazareth for the past 15 years – was one of 156 Catholics from D.C. area parishes, schools and community organizations to receive the Manifesting the Kingdom Award from Cardinal Donald Wuerl during a Jan. 8 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The Manifesting the Kingdom Award is given by the archbishop of Washington to laywomen and laymen and to consecrated women and men for their outstanding service to the Church that reveals the presence of Christ in their lives and helps carry out the mission of the New Evangelization to live and share the Catholic faith.
“She models for the kids what it means to ‘Manifest the Kingdom’” of God, said Michael Friel, the principal at Mary of Nazareth School. “It’s her day-to-day life and choice to be reverent and prayerful and serve others. She embraces her faith unapologetically and joyfully, in a steadfast way.”
Strishock began her class by praying “Hail Holy Queen” with her students, then they all said, “Jesus rocks!”
For the 10 commandments exercise, the class first together discussed how to say the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” using positive language.
“Always keep your promises with your spouse,” one girl said. Then students said they could live out that sacrament today by keeping your promises to God and with other people.
Then the nearly 30 students broke into small groups, and tackled their assignment with animated discussions. While no one came down a mountainside carrying stone tablets like Moses did, at least one boy typed his responses onto a tablet with his keyboard, while most of his classmates wrote in longhand in their notebooks.
On his keyboard, the boy rephrased the first commandment by typing, “Only believe in one true God,” which he said could be put in practice by putting “God above material things.” One student wrote that could be lived out by spending time with God every day, which a classmate said could be done by praying to God, “every night and day.”
Students rewrote the second commandment’s prohibition against taking God’s name in vain, by writing, “Use God’s name in a respectful way.” A student wrote that could be done by only using God’s name during prayer, and several said that it’s better to exclaim “oh my gosh” in the course of the day, rather than the alternative.
For the third commandment, a girl wrote that keeping the Lord’s day holy can be done by going to church every Sunday and participating in the Mass. She said the fourth commandment, honoring your father and mother, can be a matter of listening to them, and not ever rolling your eyes at them.
The fifth commandment’s rule against killing was rephrased by that student as “honor life,” which could be done, she wrote, by helping people instead of hurting them, and by being kind to animals.
The seventh commandment’s condemnation of stealing could be lived out by giving instead of taking, and by returning lost items, that girl wrote, adding that the eighth commandment’s requirement not to bear false witness means “tell the truth to your neighbor” and can be done by being honest to everyone and by admitting if you’ve done something wrong.
A boy in a nearby group wrote that the eighth commandment can mean that you “take responsibility for something you did” and “stand up for something.”
Strishock said one of the greatest joys of her work is “the enthusiasm of the kids. They keep you young while they turn your hair grey. They have such energy and enthusiasm!”
As the students dispersed for intramural sports, sixth grader Bailey Guessford said she admires her teacher because, “She’s really close to Jesus, which is good.”
Mary of Nazareth’s strong Catholic identity helped draw Strishock to the school and has kept her there, and she accepted the Manifesting the Kingdom Award on behalf of her fellow teachers there.
“They work as hard as I do to raise children in the faith and to bring Christ to them,” she said. “We’re all here because it is a Catholic school.”
Strishock has a degree in special education and a dual certificate in elementary and middle school education from the University of Maryland, and has earned a master’s in administration. For her first three years at Mary of Nazareth, she taught second graders, which included preparing them for their First Confession and First Holy Communion.
As the new school expanded into offering a middle school program, she began teaching religion and math to the older students, and in recent years has concentrated on teaching the faith to middle schoolers. She coordinates weekly Masses for different grades and the monthly all-school Mass, which involve priests from the seven upper Montgomery County parishes that cosponsor the regional Catholic elementary school.
When she teaches about vocations to the students and encourages them to open their hearts to God’s call for their lives, she speaks of her own experience. In 2009, Strishock made public vows as a consecrated virgin, promising to live a life of prayer and celibacy, not as a member of a religious community, but as an individual committed to living a consecrated life active in the world, which she carries out as a teacher in her Catholic school, sharing Christ with her students every day.
With her vocation, she continues one of the oldest forms of consecrated life in the Church, one that is relatively rare today, but continues the legacy of early Christian saints like Agnes, Cecilia, Agatha and Lucy, who are remembered when Catholics pray the litany of the saints.
“I feel blessed they have a chapel in the school. That’s one of the reasons I picked Mary of Nazareth,” said Strishock, who goes to pray there during lunch break or at other free times during the day. “I pray before the Blessed Sacrament. To me, that’s my spouse, so I’ll go and have a conversation with Jesus.”
Strishock, who attended Little Flower School in Bethesda and then Immaculata Preparatory School in Washington, now is a member of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg. She said a key goal of her work is to help her students know and love Jesus and have a personal relationship with him. “You can talk to him like a regular person,” she said.
Her classroom displays celebrate salvation history. One bulletin board highlights outstanding early Christians, and a nearby poster depicts a timeline of Church history, from the birth of Jesus to the election of Pope Francis. Another poster shows the skyline of modern-day Jerusalem. A long quotation above the whiteboard reads, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
She hopes her religion classes will help the students throughout their lives, and she noted how one girl later told her the prayers she learned in her class gave her strength when her mother was seriously ill. “It’s not just classroom knowledge and a grade, it’s life lessons,” the teacher said, describing what she tries to give her students.
And she said that her students, by their words and actions, teach her about the faith. “I see Christ in them by the way they treat me and others,” she said, on the afternoon when her sixth graders had excitedly worked together to put a positive spin on the 10 Commandments.