OF all the sights and landmarks along the coast where I live, the one that stirs my memory most is the Woodbridge Elementary School, which overlooks the proverbial green of a small New England town. No, I did not attend it, nor does my daughter, although some of her island cronies are in the earliest grades of this proud, yellow, wooden structure. Among them is Andrea, age 7, who is enthusiastic in her approval of its spacious classrooms and playground, the shapes of the desks and the views from the windows.
My attraction to the school began when I first noticed its gold-on-black sign, worthy of a downtown shop, facing the green. The words ``Erected 1898'' reassure me in a way too personal to express in terms of historic preservation.
In 1976 I was a college student miles upon miles from home in need of a summer job.
When a friend gained a contract to tear down an old schoolhouse and asked for my help, I didn't think twice. Next day, crowbar in hand, I was looking over corn and sunflower fields of South Dakota all the way to Minnesota from the many tall and wide windows of a building I was to help destroy.
We didn't tear it down so much as we dismantled it, plank by plank. The good wood and nails were small consolation, however, for the agonizing project, which took twice the time we bargained for. It was built in 1904, and the carpenters cut no corners; rather, they layered and reinforced every wall and seam against the relentless arctic fronts of a Dakota school year.
Why did the town give it up? ``Fire- trap'' began the answer, which did nothing to explain how it had stood there for 72 years without a scorch mark that I could find.
The rest of the answer sat across the old school's play yard: the new school, a one-story brick structure with windowless classrooms.
Many such schools were going up along Colorado's east slope at the time, only to be condemned a few years later for the radioactive content of their materials. Meanwhile, national studies began to show that windowless factories and office buildings were causing stress and disorientation among workers.
Colorado's children are fortunate to have a second chance at vision as well as safe air. Elsewhere, pupils and teachers are stuck with the exchange: inspiring views from the solid structures of the past for the walled-in fluorescence of the American present.
The pursuit of a view, ever changing by the whims of weather and the sequences of sun and season, is nowhere more evident than here on Plum Island, Mass. In many cases, the words ``rebuilt'' and, if you will, ``hyper-built'' best describe what has happened here in recent years. Side and top additions are common; some cottages have been jacked 10 to 12 feet in the air to have ground floors set underneath them. Many renewed homes are going to the three-story limit of a local ordinance as owners vie for views of the ocean, river, estuary, dunes, clam flats, and mainland.
Indeed, since I arrived in 1982, Plum Island is the only place I've ever known where the existing buildings annually outgrow the indigenous trees and plants.
Nor is such pursuit mere trivia for the nouveau riche. Half a century before Woodbridge was built, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that our mental balance depends on how often we can look toward a distant horizon. Stress and discontent, Emerson reasoned, result from too many hours within walls, or within a sprawl of buildings that cut short a city-dweller's vision.
EDUCATORS and school builders of a century ago shared Emerson's idea. The art of teaching, after all, is to cause students to look around, in every way, never fixing themselves on singular influence. Our teachers and schools, at their best, are windows on the world.
Parents, however, must think of safety first, and so it is that Woodbridge is lately labeled a firetrap, with plans to move its pupils elsewhere. Perhaps this must be so for a booming population in Massachusetts, as it was so in Colorado and eastern South Dakota a decade ago.
However, while their parents go to no little expense and effort to preserve and gain visual advantages along the coast, let's hope that the children have new schools to enhance their vision as well. Let's hope that the sight of - and from - any new school will gain the very word Andrea shouts when asked if she likes Woodbridge Elementary: