Editor's Note: "Classroom 15" coauthor Zack Demars previously worked at the Emerald as an associate news editor.
In 1959, in the sleepy town of Roseburg, Oregon, fourth-grader Janice Boyle and her other classmates were buzzing with excitement as they wrote pen pal letters for kids in the furthest place they could think of — the Soviet Union in Russia.
The only roadblock was they did not know how to send the letters. Boyle, the class secretary, penned a request to Oregon's congressional representative, Charles O. Porter, seeking his help in sending the class’s letters. This plea was directed to the State Department who denied the request, mistaking the innocent pen pal exchange for a potential propaganda scheme.
Journalists sniffed the story out, and the potential pen-pal project created a tidal wave of media attention, eventually making its way to a headline in the New York Times.
Nearly 60 years later, UO journalism professor Peter Laufer strolled into his Reporting 2 class in Allen Hall on an overcast morning during winter term, a copy of the New York Times in his hand. In front of his eager journalism students, he read aloud an article titled "On This Day in History," which covered Boyle’s story.
The instructions Laufer gave were simple: "find that girl."
This 30-minute class assignment to track down Janice Boyle eventually expanded over the course of the term and beyond, becoming a now-published book about the mysterious pen-pal project and the uncovered lives and stories of those involved.
"Classroom 15: How the Hoover FBI Censored the Dreams of Innocent Fourth Graders" by University of Oregon journalism students is the perfect cocktail of investigative journalism and obscure Oregon history.
The plot takes you by surprise, like a cold wind slapping against your face when you walk out your front door on a brisk winter morning. Readers might start the book with the misconception that this is a class project by student journalists that follows a blip in history that caught a bit of media heat. But as they near the end of Laufer's introduction and flip to Chapter 1 — "Children as Victims, Children as Peacemakers" by lead reporter Zack Demars — readers understand this book is so much more.
“Classroom 15” has a seat at the table for everyone. Readers who have a journalism background can recognize the stir of giddiness in their lower stomach at the endless possibilities a story like this brings, and appreciate the investigative work behind it. But for readers with no journalism background, it is an in-depth look at a forgotten piece of Oregon history with a fun pen-pal flare.
Each chapter is authored almost entirely independently by different student reporters. Although different voices lead each chapter, they work in sync with one another. The narratives and writing styles are perfectly mismatched in a way that makes it feel like the writers are retelling their investigation over a pre-COVID dinner party.
Readers gulp down the history of the Soviet Union and the Red Scare in digestible bites. Julia Mueller, editor and co-author, said, "It's not a difficult, overly verbose, academic read. You don't need to be an expert in the Cold War to read."
Themes of censorship, international relations and fear-mongering weave in and out of the chapters, and "even though it is a really old story, in the scheme of things, it has a lot of openness to political, social, etc. tensions that are happening now," Mueller said.
Each chapter is decorated with photographs, newspaper clippings and public documents that carry you along with the investigative narrative. Beyond the social and political hues, the book weaves in the curious and compelling story of Boyle and how journalism impacted her life far beyond her elementary school walls. There are also deep-dives into other main characters, such as the teacher that initiated the potential pen-pal exchange, Boyle’s classmates and Congressman Charles O. Porter.
When the project first started in the energetic Reporting 2 classroom, Professor Laufer gave his class thirty-minutes to find Boyle. But once the students located the mysterious Janice Boyle — "now well into her years of eligibility to collect Social Security" — the reporting students were hungry for more answers. They were quick to protest when the short deadline for the class assignment reached its end.
"It was the moment of transition, where it became clear that this group of students was not just a group of students, it was a group of news reporters," Laufer said. "It was a very gratifying moment."
In the UO class registry, the course appeared as Reporting 2, but to the students and Laufer, it was Janice 101. "The whole thing is predicated on this idea of, what could be around the next corner?" Demars said. The class was alive as they uncovered different nooks and crannies of the story. Demars said the class was intrigued by the idea of, “what would happen if?”
This curiosity led the UO undergrads to a two-year investigative project where they embarked outside of their Allen Hall classroom, deep-diving through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, tracking down sources across the world and even leading Demars to jump on a plane to Moscow, Russia to close the pen-pal loop.
As readers close the book, there will be a moment of satisfaction and reflection on how no story is too small to tell. Demars said this book is indicative of "the value of learning about people before you draw a conclusion about them."
It also shows that a small story can have connections to much more significant issues, Mueller said. What appears on the outside as a small story about a small girl in a small town is so much more profound.
"We hope that readers realize that there's a story everywhere and a story that's important to tell," Laufer said.