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At his Chilton preparatory school ten-year reunion, writer Tom Robinson Lee reminisces about his eventful year at the school: As a new student, shy and sensitive Tom acquires a romantic crush on Laura, the wife of dormitory headmaster Bill Reynolds. In the dorm garden outside her downstairs apartment, Laura draws Tom out, learning that he barely knew his mother and has never before been in love, having lived the previous decade in a series of all-male boarding schools. After Tom reveals that he hopes to escort her to Saturday night's dance, which will follow opening night of the school play, Laura tries to teach him to dance, but Tom is too shy. Later, he follows her to the beach, where Laura sews with faculty wives Lilly Sears and Mary Williams. Although Bill and the other boys are roughhousing nearby, Tom prefers to sit with the ladies, and when some of the boys spy him helping them to sew, Tom earns the nickname "Sister Boy." When Laura later drops by to ask Bill to plan a vacation alone with her, he berates her for allowing Tom to sew, and reveals that he has invited some students to vacation with them. Upon returning to the dorm, the boys taunt Tom, even though his roommate, Al Thompson, a star athlete, comes to his defense. On Saturday afternoon, Tom competes in a tennis match that his father Herb has come to watch. When Herb hears the boys mocking Tom, however, he leaves the match, to Tom's dismay. Herb later tries to "help" his son by urging him to cut his hair into a fashionable crewcut and encouraging him to harass soda shop waitress Ellie Martin, as the other boys do. Later, Herb visits Bill, a friend from their Chilton days, and expresses shame that Tom is not "a regular fellow." Laura is distressed to overhear the men's hopes that the evening's bonfire, at which new boys, wearing pajamas, are roughed up by older students, will make a man of Tom. When she later complains to Bill, he reveals that Tom's outcast status is a stain on the dorm and a grievance to Herb, and that rather than becoming emotionally involved, her only role is to provide "tea and sympathy" to the boys. Laura brings up her first husband, a sensitive boy she married when they were eighteen, only to lose him the next year in the war, but the subject infuriates Bill. Upstairs, meanwhile, upon learning that Tom is to play a female in the school production, Herb forces him to decline the role. Tom is disappointed and humiliated, especially after Herb admonishes him to "fight tonight, or else." At the bonfire, the boys march Tom out to the field, but once there, refuse to touch him, a slight more shameful than the hazing that the other boys are enduring. Unable to bear it, Al rips off Tom's top, prompting the others to join suit. As Laura runs off in revulsion, Tom rushes back to the dorm. In her rooms later, Al confesses to Laura that his father has insisted that Al change roommates the following year, and when Laura threatens to besmirch Al's reputation to show him how easily false rumors can start, Al responds heatedly that she has nothing to lose and so cannot understand. Realizing the truth of Al's statement, Laura apologizes. Al then attempts to teach his friend how to appear manlier, but Tom knows that it is too late for him to gain the boys' comradeship, and refuses the lessons. After Al reveals that he will switch dorms, however, Tom, in desperation, considers his friend's parting advice: to visit Ellie, whose bad reputation will give credence to Tom's heterosexuality. Soon after at their apartment, Bill tears up a book of poetry Tom has given Laura. Laura begs to know why Bill hates Tom and what has driven a wedge in their young marriage, but Bill refuses to talk to her, stating only that he does not want Laura to see Tom alone. When Laura then hears Tom making a date with Ellie, however, she tries frantically to detain the boy, inviting him into the apartment and informing him about her husband, who was killed trying to prove his bravery to disbelieving peers. Tom, assuming Laura pities him, tries to leave, prompting her to beg him to dance. Instead, Tom asks why Bill hates him and his father is ashamed of him, and breaks down in tears. When Laura holds him, Tom impulsively kisses her, but runs off when Bill and some boys return early from their weekend mountain climb. Tom sneaks off to Ellie's, where he is awkward and repulsed by her slatternly ways. He tries to kiss her, but after he pulls away, she recalls his nickname and shouts "Sister Boy" at him. Tom breaks down, grabbing a knife from her kitchen drawer to attempt suicide. Ellie screams out to her neighbors, who call the campus police, and Tom is arrested. The next day, the campus hears the story of Tom's humiliation, and although Herb is at first proud of his son, when he learns that Tom pulled away from Ellie, he crumples in grief. Laura, overcome with sadness and anger, tells Bill in private that she blames him for bullying Tom by imposing a rigid definition of "manliness," and insists that real men can be gentle and considerate. She then declares that she is lonely and depressed and wishes she had helped Tom prove himself with her, after which Bill retorts that she wants to mother a boy rather than to love a man. When Laura asks why he refuses to let her love him, Bill storms off without reply. Laura looks for Tom in his room, only to discover a series of half-finished suicide notes. She searches the school grounds, finally locating him alone in the woods. There, Tom expresses his deep shame, and as Laura consoles him, her sympathy and loneliness cause her to reach out for him. As they kiss, she says, "Years from now, when you talk about this¿and you will¿be kind." In the present, Tom visits Bill, who now lives alone in the dorm apartment. Bill, still cold, gives Tom a letter he found among Laura's belongings. In the garden, Tom reads the letter she wrote to him stating that she appreciates the loving novel he wrote about their relationship, but feels that she sacrificed Bill for Tom, because the boy was easier to save than the marriage. Now sad and alone, Laura wishes Tom a full and understanding life, and assures him that, as he wrote in his book, "the wife always kept her affection for the boy."