On the second Monday in September, teacher Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis) brings her youth and ideals to Calvin Coolidge High School which stands bleakly on a side street in New York City.
Inside the school, amid a cacophony of ringing bells and bleating loudspeakers, she gets an armload of official directives which she is instructed to keep in alphabetical order by school clerk Sadie Finch (Jean Stapleton).
Seeking her classroom she innocently starts up a staircase marked for “down” traffic and is caught and reprimanded by the school principal, Dr Bester (Sorrell Booke).
In her disorderly classroom, Sylvia is visited by petty administrative assistant JJ McHabe (Roy Poole) who gives her instructions for proper lighting and ventilation but only excuses for a pitiful lack of supplies.
Sylvia’s pupils charge in and plague her with chatter, requests, jibes and horseplay. She never manages to complete roll call.
Joe Ferone (Jeff Howard) is brought in late by McHabe and quickly becomes Sylvia’s greatest challenge and cross to bear.
Later, in the teachers’ lunch room, Sylvia meets faculty members Henrietta Pastorfield (Eileen Heckart), Beatrice Schacter (Ruth White) and Paul Barringer (Patrick Bedford). In a subsequent teachers’ meeting, petty subjects are discussed while supply shortages, discipline problems, vandalism and student problems are glossed over or referred to committees.
Sylvia involves her class in a lively discussion of literature, during which she meets student leader Harry A Kagan (Salvatore Rasa), plump and love-sick Alice Blake (Ellen O’Mara), sexpot Linda Rosen (Candace Culkin), embittered Eddie Williams (John Fantauzzi) and the supersensitive Joe Rodriguez.
Barringer urges Sylvia to develop a passive attitude toward her work and pupils but she becomes increasingly involved with Joe Ferone, when he is accused of stealing and cheating.
Sylvia seeks information on him from guidance councillor Ella Friedenberg (Florence Stanley) and learns that Feorne has a high IQ but despite her efforts to reach him, she is forced to turn him in for brandishing a switchblade knife.
Troubled student Alice Blake falls in love with Barringer, her English teacher, misinterpreting his kindness and writing him a love letter, which he then coldly discusses with respect to sentence structure and without regard to the content.
His lack of sensitivity drives her to a suicide attempt and causes a major school crisis.
A confrontation with Joe Ferone on an evening when the parents of students are visiting the school shows Sylvia that her intentions have been entirely misinterpreted by him. But she perseveres and gradually wins out against all the social and individual odds.
The movie was filmed in New York City, in and around Haaren High School, which had been emptied for the summer
Mr JJ McHabe
Nurse Frances Eagen
Harry A. Kagan