Montgomery High School freshman Camden Dahms doesn't usually get to throw punches in class.
But on Friday, Dahms and his first-year Mandarin classmates learned the basic moves of Wushu, a Chinese martial art, from a local expert brought in by Mandarin teacher Denise Long to give students a glimpse of another aspect of Chinese history.
"I wanted to expand students' understanding of Chinese culture and invigorate their interest in learning the language," Long said.
The three-dozen first-year Mandarin students are expected to spend more than an hour for three Fridays this spring stretching, learning forms and getting lessons on the meaning behind moves and seemingly simple hand gestures and greetings.
"I wanted to expose them to as much of the culture as possible," Long said. "I also wanted to get someone who the kids could connect with."
Long teamed up with Justin Eggert, a Santa Rosa High School graduate who runs the Wu Academy in Santa Rosa. Eggert, 29, and is a nationally and internationally decorated "Sifu," or master of wushu, an ancient martial art. Eggert agreed to volunteer on three Fridays with the students, teaching them movements and explaining — alternating between Mandarin and English — the meaning behind the forms.
Between moves, Eggert explained that a simple greeting of putting a left fist into the open palm of the right hand symbolizes the oceans and lake regions around ancient China coming together in peace.
"If you salute someone like this then you are signaling that we should be brothers, we should be sisters," he said. "You would never do that unless you really meant it."
To do the reverse, a right fist into the left hand, has an entirely different meaning, he said.
Dahms, who studied the language for two years at Slater Middle School, said the lessons make Mandarin come alive in a new way.
"It's like a different experience — understanding Chinese a little better with the background," he said.
Mandarin has long been offered at Montgomery High School and Slater Middle School but is still something of a rarity in Sonoma County. Private schools Sonoma Academy and The Healdsburg School offer Mandarin instruction while other campuses have extra-curricular instruction.
Mandarin comes nowhere near the popularity of Spanish and French. In the United States, three out of four students taking a foreign language in 2008 studied Spanish, according to the American Council on Teaching of Foreign Languages, citing the latest numbers available.
That hasn't dissuaded Eva Ratcliff from studying Mandarin for two years at Slater and now as a freshman at Montgomery.
"Chinese is just becoming so important in our world," she said. "It seems like we are going to have to learn it to be in business so it seems practical to learn it in high school."