Miss Dove, a middle-aged geography teacher in Liberty Hill, takes the same route to school every day. She walks past old Mr. Porter's house and observes him using a new spray on his lilies. He sputters when she informs him that the flowers will die. Later, she proves to be correct. She passes the home of Tommy and Jincey Baker, both former pupils. Tommy is now a doctor and Jincey is expecting their first child any day. Since Miss Dove doesn't believe in nicknames, she calls them Thomas and Virginia. Alex and Polly Burnham are also on Miss Dove's route. He is the pastor of the local church. David, their son, rudely declares that he hates oatmeal. His mother tells him to hurry, that Miss Dove has just passed and he doesn't want to be late.
Children in Miss Dove's class are expected to have a clean handkerchief pinned to their clothing. They file into her classroom in an orderly manner, responding politely with "Good morning Miss Dove" when she greets them. She has strict rules and expects them to be obeyed, yet she is not unkind.
Flashbacks show how Miss Dove became a teacher. Her wealthy father died shortly after she finished college. They were very close and Mr. Dove had promised to take his daughter on a trip to Europe. She had a beau, Mr. Pendleton, and hoped that their friendship would eventually ripen into something more. But the sudden death of Mr. Dove changed everything. To her horror, Miss Dove learns that she is destitute. Her father's home was heavily mortgaged and not only that, he had embezzled money from the bank where he worked. To prevent a scandal, Miss Dove persuades Mr. Porter, the bank president, to transfer the debt to her. Since she has read her father's books on geography, she feels qualified to teach that subject in the elementary school. Thus begins her teaching career.
Back in the present time, Miss Dove overhears David using a swear word. While the rest of the class goes to lunch, David has to write 50 times "Nothing is achieved by swearing." Suddenly Miss Dove feels a crushing pain in her lower spine. She tries to stand up but cannot. Reluctantly she asks David to go home and have his father fetch Dr. Hurley. But he is ill and Tommy Baker comes in his place. It is obvious that Miss Dove would rather have her own doctor, but Tommy is available and she tells him her symptoms. He and Alexander make a chair with their arms and carry her to the hospital, just two blocks away. Tommy didn't want to jostle her spine by putting her in a car.
Another of Miss Dove's former pupils, William "Bill" Holloway, is now a policeman. He races to the hospital to have them reserve a room for Miss Dove. By the time she arrives, a crowd has gathered. Miss Dove is assigned a nurse, Mrs. Greene, who reveals that she is the former Billie Jean McVey. Miss Dove finds her overly caring manner irritating. Billie Jean was once engaged to Bill Holloway but he broke up with her several weeks earlier.
Once settled in bed, Miss Dove reminisces about Bill, who was one of her favorite pupils. He was being raised by an alcoholic grandmother in a shack outside town. Miss Dove sees potential in him and hires him to do her yard work. Later, she is the only one who attends his grandmother's funeral. After a tour of duty in the Army, Bill returns to Liberty Hill and becomes a police officer.
Tommy visits and tells Miss Dove that the following day she will have a battery of tests. Until then she is not to worry. The room fills up with flowers and Miss Dove dispatches Billie Jean to give them to other patients. Later, Billie Jean confides that she is not really Mrs. Greene. She took the name for her daughter's sake. When she told Bill about her past, he broke up with her. Miss Dove believes he has made a mistake and later praises Billie Jean, causing Bill to change his mind.
Other visitors stop by to see their favorite teacher, including Maurice Levine and Fred Makepeace. Maurice is a playwright and earlier had invited Miss Dove to New York as his guest, to see his new play. When Maurice was in her class, the others made fun of him because he was Jewish. Miss Dove put a stop to that by having his parents invite the class to a Passover meal at their home. This changed their opinion of Maurice. Fred Makepeace was among what Miss Dove considered her failures. He was a petty thief as a child and eventually was sent to prison for armed robbery as an adult. While on a chain gang, he heard of Miss Dove's illness and escaped to visit her, stealing a suit from a funeral home. Miss Dove is unaware that Fred is "on the lam". Later, he is captured by Bill Holloway.
After many scans and tests, Miss Dove awaits word on her condition. Tommy and Mr. Porter visit her. Mr. Porter is there representing the Rotary Club, who has voted to assume full financial responsibility for her medical bills. They can even charter a plane to transfer her to the Mayo Clinic or Johns Hopkins, if she wants. Tommy tells her that she has a growth on her spine and it must, if possible, be removed. He won't know until he performs the surgery whether the tumor is malignant or not. Miss Dove decides to remain in Liberty Hill for the surgery. Although she at first refuses Mr. Porter's offer, she decides to accept it after learning that it is not charity Liberty Hill offers her, but respect.
Not knowing whether she will survive the surgery or if the tumor is malignant, Miss Dove gives Tommy her father's gold pocket watch. It is bequeathed to him in her will, but she wants him to have it temporarily. If all goes well and she will be all right, he can return it.
The surgery takes hours and the crowd in front of the hospital grows larger. They are finally told to go home, that a report will not be available until the next morning. Billie Jean chases away a group of children who want to give blood. She tells them the best thing they can do for Miss Dove is to go home and study for the state proficiency tests, which are coming up.
The next morning, church bells ring as the town learns that Miss Dove's surgery was a success. Tommy tells her that Jincey gave birth to twin boys and that they will be a handful in school. He returns the watch to her. Miss Dove is puzzled as to why the church bells are ringing. Billie Jean reports that the crowd in front of the hospital is wild with excitement and that the schools are closed. At this, Miss Dove replies that they must not close the schools because the children need to review for the proficiency tests. But she is obviously touched that so many of her former pupils care about her.