Based on Evan Hunter’s novel, a new teacher with a pregnant wife faces a class with juvenile delinquents and tries to discipline them so that they can learn.
During titles Bill Haley sings “Rock Around the Clock.” Teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) meets with the high school principal Warneke (John Hoyt) in New York, and he gets the job. He asks about the discipline problem, and the principal says there is none as long as he is principal. Dadier meets Jim Murdock (Louis Calhern), who calls it the “garbage can of the educational system” and warns him never to turn his back on the students. Lois Hammond (Margaret Hayes) seems naively optimistic. Dadier meets jazz enthusiast Josh Edwards (Richard Kiley) who is also new.
Dadier joins his wife Anne (Anne Francis) at a restaurant and tells her not to worry about this pregnancy. They see two hot rods racing in the street.
On the first day of school teachers and students attend an assembly. Mr. Halloran (Emile Meyer) tells the students to shut up, and he warns them about trouble. Miss Hammond reads her list of students amid whistling. In the hall Dadier tells his class not to talk. He asks Artie West (Vic Morrow) to write down the name of any kid who talks. In a bathroom he catches several guys smoking, and he warns them. Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitiers) says he has to wash his hands. In class Dadier tells them to sit down, and he spells his name on the blackboard. Someone throws a baseball that damages the board. He tells West to take off his hat and threatens to knock it off. Dadier explains why learning English is important. He asks West to stay after class, and they call him Daddy-O. The bell rings, and he asks Miller to stay after. Dadier tells him he is a leader, and he asks him to cooperate. After school Miss Hammond offers Dadier a ride. He checks out and then finds a student molesting her in the library. He chases the student, who jumps into a window, cutting his face.
At home Dadier tells Anne about the incident and admits Hammond is attractive. Anne is jealous, but he reassures her. The next morning students suspect Dadier is a boxer. He puts up an exercise on the board and calls on Miller, who gives the wrong answer. Others do the same. He tells them to copy the sentences for homework. He calls Miller outside and says he is leading them in the wrong direction. Miller says the boy is going to jail. After school Hammond asks Dadier to walk her to her car. Edwards invites him to go in a bar and says it is not fair because he wants to teach. Edwards says he is going to bring in his record collection to his math class. As they walk to the bus, boys grab them and hit them with their fists until the police arrive.
At home Dadier has Anne turn out the lights so she won’t lose the baby. He says he will not quit. In a principal’s office he asks his professor (Basil Ruysdael) if teaching is worth it when they don’t care. He visits classes that are working, and he says he wants to shape minds. Dadier goes back to school and tells the police detective he could not identify any of the kids. The detective says he should help them so they can stop the gangs. Miller welcomes him back. A machine shop above them is heard in their room. Dadier says he brought a tape recorder. Students suggest that Morales (Rafael Campos) talk first, and he uses the word “stinkin’” in every sentence. West calls Morales a “Spic.” Dadier says there will be no name-calling in his class and gives examples. Dadier is summoned by Warneke, who warned Murdock about hitting a kid. He asks Dadier about racial prejudice and asks where he is from. Warneke says he has been reported to be a bigot. Warneke lectures him, and Dadier explains he was teaching a lesson and used negative examples. Warneke refuses to say who accused him. Dadier explains, and Warneke realizes he was wrong and apologizes. Warneke asks Dadier to take charge of their Christmas show. Dadier accuses Miller of going to Warneke and ganging up on him with West. Miller tries to provoke Dadier into hitting him.
Outside West leads his gang in planning a robbery. Dadier buys a newspaper. The gang attacks a newspaper truck, and West throws a bottle at a wall near Dadier, who says they all are wearing the same kind of jacket and calls it a gang. West says he is in his classroom, and he tells him not to interfere.
Boys ask Edwards to play a record, and he plays a rare blues record. West starts breaking records, and others rough up Edwards. They dance to the music and then leave. Dadier comes in, and Edwards says he does not understand.
Dadier tells his class that the records cannot be replaced, but the phonograph cost $40. He asks them to contribute to a jar. In the faculty room Murdock says Dadier had them write “I respect private property” five hundred times. Dadier goes on about how hard it is and criticizes each of them and himself. He says there must be some way to reach them.
On a snowy day Anne gets a letter that says, “Watch your husband. There’s another woman.” It’s after five, and she walks to the school. She asks why he stayed late after school. He says Josh quit. She says his professor can get him a job in his school. He wants to stay and says he loves her.
Before school Dadier hears Miller and five other Negroes singing “Let My People Go.” Dadier asks Miller what are the rules. In class Dadier shows a cartoon of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and the boys enjoy it. Miller starts retelling the story, and they discuss it, seeing Jack as a thief. Dadier urges them to think for themselves. Another teacher approves and offers to be Santa Claus in his show, but Murdoch is cynical as usual.
At home Anne has several letters, one naming Lois, and she gets a phone call about it. Dadier is rehearsing his play, and Murdoch wonders if he has got them trained. Lois asks Dadier what else he needs. She asks if he would like to get away from there with her; but she realizes he is married. Miller needs attention, and Dadier says goodnight to Lois. Anne gets another call and pleads for them not to call her. Dadier walks with Miller to his job working on cars. Miller starts working and says no one cares. Dadier asks him not to quit trying. Dadier suggests they make a pact not to quit. A neighbor tells Dadier that his wife was taken to a hospital. There the doctor says his wife had a premature boy. The doctor asks what was disturbing her. Dadier talks to sleepy Anne, who asks if he is happy. The neighbor hands the letters she found to Dadier.
Dadier is talking with Murdoch, who says the show was good. Dadier says he is through. Murdoch says he was wrong and that Dadier got through to them. Dadier asks who cares, and he complains that teachers get only $2 an hour. At the hospital Dadier kisses Anne, and she asks what is wrong. He says he is scared and asks what if the baby does not live. She says she loves him and blames herself for believing the lie. She is glad he kept trying to teach. The doctor comes in and says their son is out of danger.
Dadier gives his class an assignment and takes five points off Belazi’s paper for looking at another’s paper. Dadier tells West to bring up his paper. He refuses, and Miller urges him to do so. West and Miller are about to fight, but Dadier stops them with his voice. West throws his paper on the floor, and Dadier says they are going to the principal’s office. West refuses and says he will have to take him. West pulls out a switch-blade knife, and Dadier tells him to give him the knife. Miller stops Belazi from sneaking up on Dadier. West backs up and asks for help, but Miller is on the other side. Dadier accuses West of sending the foul letters and corners him. He makes West drop the knife and roughs him up. Belazi picks up the knife, but others restrain him. A student gives Dadier a handkerchief for his cut hand, and he says they are taking those two to the principal’s office. Miller and the others offer to help Dadier. After school Miller gives Dadier the can with 87 cents. He expects that Dadier will stay now. Miller says they have a pact, and he won’t quit either.
This classroom drama takes on the issue of juvenile delinquency and its negative effect on education, especially in poor urban areas where there are violent gangs. Depicting a Negro as a positive influence goes against the stereotype and makes it clear it is not race but poverty and ignorance that breed senseless violence. By remaining strong and persistent and creative the teacher manages to win over most of his class.