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What’s in a name?

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Rachel Miller, left, and Nellie Beauregard, students at Ashland High School, are on the committee to recommend new names for the John Muir Outdoor School.
Former students of the John Muir Outdoor School join committee to help give it a new name

Their friendship may have been “rocky” at first, but before long Rachel Miller and Nellie Beauregard become close, trying to keep each other warm during a backpacking trip when they were students of the John Muir Outdoor School.

It happened when Miller and Beauregard stayed overnight in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness Area and decided to get up early one day before everyone else.

“We just sat in the cold trying to boil water, but our fingers were so cold that we couldn't use a lighter — therefore, not able to light the fire for the water,” Miller wrote in an email.

But not being able to keep warm was no justification for saying the experience wasn’t worth it.

“It was a great time, and much like other memories involves us being cold and something to laugh about after the fact,” Miller wrote.

Both are students at Ashland High School, but what Miller and Beauregard are thinking about now is no laughing matter. They are on a committee tasked with helping the school board select a name for the John Muir Outdoor School to replace that of Muir, the co-founder of the Sierra Club and “father” of the National Parks system.

The committee’s work was triggered by another, which last year examined all the Ashland School District building names, and found that “a deeper and more critical reading of (Muir’s) actions and beliefs sheds light on the harms done historically, and how they reverberate to the present day” — specifically, harms toward the Native Americans who once inhabited what is now National Parks land.

“His outdoor accomplishments were great for the time, but I think what he said about Native Americans definitely overshadowed that,” Beauregard said of Muir. “We can’t just brush away that stuff because he did some good things.”

Beauregard attended John Muir Outdoor School for all of its grades, K-8, owing to the fact that her sisters enrolled. Miller attended the school in grades 4-8 only, since she was a transplant to Ashland from Maine. Both of them say the school changed them for the better, increasing their love for the outdoors.

But Muir, who died more than a century ago, was rarely incorporated into the curriculum, the two young women said. Miller recalls reading some of his writings, while Beauregard recalls some of his most notable quotes being invoked.

John Muir Outdoor School’s website includes little about Muir the man, with the exception of a quote: “Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds or the music of water written in river-lines?"

Quotes such as that were often tied to numerous notebooks Muir filled with his thoughts on wildness during trips outdoors. The notebooks tied to his belt as he walked, he’d sometimes stop, sit by a campfire or big tree and write. The journal entries — though often hard to decipher, as they were written in pencil — were later published.

“We were told about his impact on the nature reserves and parks in the country and not really about the darker aspects of who he was,” Miller wrote in an email. “If we did talk about him, it was brief and not important.”

Looking back on the John Muir Outdoor School curriculum now, Miller believes instructors should have been more open about who Muir was.

“I believe his legacy should have been taught more, if not for us to follow it but to understand his lasting effects,” she wrote.

But once Miller learned more about Muir, it did not have an impact on how she felt about her former school.

“I’d been going there long enough that I understood the core values of the school that the name didn’t mean as much anymore,” she said. “I understand where (the district) is coming from in changing (the name), and I agree.”

Beauregard said the name of the school had no impact on her.

“They never made John Muir their backing up of all their beliefs about the outdoors,” she said.

Beauregard heard about the renaming committee through a former teacher, who asked whether she’d be interested in joining.

“I’m very happy that they did ask students to join because … that’s a very valued voice in the John Muir school,” she said. “I think when you’re a student, you get to experience (the school more) than a parent or a school board member. You grow up with that and you see how it affects you and the friends you make there.”

Miller joined the committee because she thought it would be a good experience, she cares about the school and wants the new name to be a positive part of the community.

The first meeting Feb. 2 was an introduction to the committee’s charge and the people behind it who will work together.

“Moving forward, I think it will be successful,” Miller said.

Beauregard said the first meeting was spent talking about what “we want to consider and bringing to the table when talking about what the new names could be.”

She noted that the committee had not thought of suggestions for new school names, and neither had she.

But Miller ventured to say the school should probably not be named after a person.

“Everyone in history has their flaws. As my brother says, there’s no way to use a single name because it has so many facets of their personality,” she said. “So, probably something in nature that may, metaphorically, represent something from the school (would be best).

On that note, Beauregard said the name “Ashland Outdoor School” would be “too broad.”

Miller agreed, adding that kind of a name does not represent the student body.

Beauregard wants the community to be involved in the renaming process — and they have been asked to give feedback online — but she knows a new name won’t make everyone happy.

“A more centered focus would be, make sure the school’s community would be happy with it,” Beauregard said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.