The magical story of a teacher, her students and Arnold the 800-pound pig
Arnold wasn’t just any pig — he was an 800-pound Hampshire boar who lived in a San Joaquin Valley tract home and was believed, by some, to be able to talk.
Four decades ago, the massive animal captured international fame and became the source of inspiration and imagination for 32 second-graders in the Sacramento area.
Now, their teacher is looking to reconnect with her former students, who should be about 54 years old today, so she can share with them a book she wrote about their experience writing back and forth to their pig pen pal.
Lynn Gordon — now a San Luis Obispo resident and former teacher at Kingswood Elementary School in Citrus Heights — wrote a 93-page self-published book called “Some Pig,” documenting her extraordinary, “magical” 1972-73 school year as a young educator.
“The story is theirs,” Gordon said of the book, which she first published in 2016. “I just want to find them and give them a copy of the book because I know that this made an impact on each and every one of them. I’m sure they remember it to this day.”
The story that’s so dear to Gordon’s heart involved the kids’ six-month letter correspondence with Arnold.
The hog’s voice was humanized in regular letters sent to the kids, written by its owner, Mickey Boccabella, who was referred to as “Mom” and lived in Firebaugh, near Fresno.
The story of the Boccabellas’ famous pig was first shared in the Fresno Bee by staff writer Joe Thome. Its massive size (the average weight for market pigs is about 280 pounds) drew national attention, and the hog was featured on Walter Cronkite’s CBS news program.
“I heard a lady in Firebaugh had an 800-pound pig as a housepet,” Thome told The Tribune. “I stopped by and she let me do a story. There was a lot of interest in that story thereafter and I’m pretty sure it was covered not only in national media, but outside the U.S. in European media.”
The children’s school was located about 135 miles north, and they never saw the pig in person, only in photos and news stories.
Gordon reached out to Boccabella because her class was reading “Charlotte’s Web” and she noticed the Bee story and read it in class, sparking immediate curiosity among her students.
“Then came a rapid-fire barrage of questions (from kids) about the pig, generated by the newspaper article: How come he barks? Does he eat anything except doughnuts? Why does he cry? Does he eat dog and cat food?” Gordon wrote in her book.
The second-graders wrote to the Boccabella family with their questions, and Mickey wrote back as Arnold, signing his name. The correspondence captured their imagination that a pig could talk, like a real-life version of Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web.”
An amazing pig
Arnold was unusual not only because he lived in the Boccabella home, but also because he had his own bank account, bedroom, television and air conditioner. And he performed tricks, such as carrying an ashtray across the room on his nose.
His diet, according to news stories, included chicken, doughnuts, cake, cranberry sauce, ham (ironically) and leafy greens.
Gordon recalled the effect Arnold’s letters had on the young students and how he encouraged them to study.
Those who lacked motivation gained academic inspiration, enthralled with writing their new animal friend.
“Spelling scores improved,” Gordon wrote. “Reluctant readers began sounding out words on our room’s Arnold bulletin board. And all of the children made progress in written composition, since they wanted to write letters after completing assigned work.”
Arnold sent boxes of goodies as well, including candy, cookies and trinkets for Valentine’s Day, so many gifts that the school children even shared them with youngsters at a local shelter, teaching them the value of giving.
And the children sent return gifts, including a rock from one child that cost Gordon $6.24 in postage.
“The children couldn’t get to school fast enough every day because they were waiting to see what Arnold the pig had written to them,” Gordon told the Tribune. “Arnold wrote letters to each and every student, sometimes more than 30 of them at a time, and also sent them boxes with candy, food and gifts for parties.”
The back-and-forth turned into a close relationship between the class and family, and the students sent well-wishes when the Boccabellas’ daughter, Patty, suffered an accident and nearly lost her leg that year. She also heard from the students about their personal lives.
When “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson heard about Arnold, he invited the Boccabellas to bring him for an appearance with the schoolchildren, Gordon recalled. But Gordon learned from Mickey that the famous hog died of a heart attack before he reached 3 years old, at the end of the school year, and the broadcast never happened.
Some children visited Mickey Boccabella on family vacations during the summer before third grade and were able to see Arnold’s memorial.
Search for her students
In recent months, Gordon has tried reaching the grown members of the class, but she can’t obtain full names and contact information because of student privacy laws. She also has contacted the local high school’s alumni association and is awaiting a response.
She printed 75 copies of the second edition of her self-published book, published in 2017, and she has a book set aside 32 of them to give one to each former student. She flushed out her idea from a story she started in a nonfiction writing class at Cuesta College.
She believes it taught her and the students lessons.
“All of us has certainly experienced the magic of believing and the power of love,” Gordon wrote in the book.
Former students wishing to contact Gordon can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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