As editor-in-chief of The Gordon Grapevine, the newspaper of Gordon High School, Laurie is troubled by the lateness of its latest issue: she believes her staff isn't disciplined enough, but does not know what to do about it. As she passes Mr. Gabondi's French class, she sees her friend Amy Smith and tries to catch Amy's attention. However, she also catches Mr. Gabondi's attention and almost gets in trouble if it wasn't for the end-of-class bell. Amy joins her as they go to Ben Ross' History class.
Ross is in his classroom, having trouble with the projector. Despite the lack of mechanical skills, he has a strong reputation as an outstanding, charismatic teacher. The faculty is divided on Ross: some like his energy and creativity, while others thought he should be more traditional. For his part, Ben is troubled by the attitude of many of his students, who value their social lives over homework. As the students start to enter class, Ross enlists the help of David Collins for the projector. Robert Billings is teased by Brad when he dully asks if they'll be watching a movie that day. As class begins, Ross warns students about homework getting too sloppy - the third time he's had to do so this semester.
Ben Ross' class is studying World War II and the film they're watching is about the Nazi concentration camps. Ross speaks of Hitler's rise to power, anti-Semitism, and the Final Solution. The class is visibly shocked by the millions who died in this manner, which doesn't surprise Ross given their comfortable middle class upbringing. When asked if all Germans were Nazis, Ross answered that less than 10% were party members; asked why no one tried to stop the Nazis, Ross explains that most Germans claimed to have not known about the camps. The students scoff at this claim, adding that they wouldn't let such a thing happen if they were in that situation.
When class ends, David asks Laurie to go to lunch with him. However, she first talks to Mr. Ross further about how the Nazi atrocities could have happened. Ross then stops Robert Billings, his most problematic student, and warns Robert that if he doesn't start participating in class, he'll fail. Robert doesn't seem to care, and Ross knows it's because he lives under the shadow of his older brother Jeff - a popular athlete and student in his time - and had given up on trying. Ross tries to reach out to Robert nonetheless, but it doesn't work.
David Collins had already finished his lunch when Laurie joins him. Together, they watch as Robert Billings sits at a lunch table and the two girls already sitting there leave. They wonder if anything is wrong with Robert, but Laurie is still thinking about the Nazi footage. She loses her appetite, leaving David to eat most of her lunch. Amy Smith and Brian Ammon join them. David is part of the football team and Brian is the team's quarterback; he has two trays of food, wanting to gain weight before the game against Clarkstown. Laurie asks if they have a chance of winning this game; David isn't sure since the team is so disorganized and unmotivated. David then asks about calculus, as he wants to prepare for studying engineering in college.
All four students watch Robert Billings as he reads a Spider-Man comic book. Brian mentions that Robert slept through the film, and David points out Laurie is still upset over what they saw. Annoyed, Laurie takes Amy with her to the Grapevine office. Once there, Amy smokes by the office windows in case a teacher comes by. The two girls talk about David, who wants to be a computer engineer. Amy asks Laurie why she doesn't just marry him; Laurie detects a bit of jealousy, as Amy has also been seeking a boyfriend on the football team. The girls panic when there's a knock on the door by someone claiming to be Principal Owens. It turns out to be Grapevine reporters Carl Block and Alex Cooper playing one of their jokes. When Laurie asks them about their latest assignments for the paper, both beat a hasty retreat.
The next day, the students of Ben Ross' History class are surprised to see the slogan STRENGTH THROUGH DISCIPLINE written on the board. They did not expect a lecture about discipline from him, unlike other, more conventional teachers. Ross gets his students excited by showing how power and success is possible through discipline: using Amy as a model, he shows how this can be achieved in the proper posture and efficient organization - in how one sits, walks, and moves. He drills students, having them walk around and then get to their seats in a quick, orderly fashion. David proposes to the class that they line up in order to reach their seats faster from their standing positions. The class cheers at their success when this suggestion works.
Mr. Ross then gives three more rules to his students: one, all students must have pencils and paper for note-taking; two, they must stand at the side of their seat to answer any questions; three, all answers and questions must begin with the address "Mr. Ross". He then drills his student in these rules, asking them history questions. When the bell rings, the students wait for final orders from Mr. Ross instead of leaving on their own volition.
After class, several students congregate to discuss how they enjoyed the experience. David especially believes in the power behind this discipline, though Brad and some others were skeptical. David goes to the boys' rest room and sees Robert Billings going over the drills from class on his own.
That night, Christy Ross is surprised at hearing how well Ben's students took to discipline. She asks if it will continue the next day and Ben thinks it won't, as he plans to move on to the Japanese campaign. What Ben doesn't admit to his wife is how much he enjoyed the experience, as well.
Arriving late for class the next day, Ben Ross is surprised to find his students observing the same disciplined posture and silence from the drills. Mr. Ross decides to take it further and introduces a second slogan to the class, STRENGTH THROUGH COMMUNITY. He explains this slogan as the importance of being part of something bigger than oneself. He also creates a symbol, a wave, and a matching salute by which the class should greet one another. He drills the student over this new information and instructions.
During football practice after school, Eric is skeptical of David wanting to introduce the entire team to The Wave. However, Brian Ammon is scared of facing Clarkstown's massive linebackers and is willing to give it a try. Deutsch, the junior who is second-string quarterback, taunts his rivals and offers to take Brian's place in the game, leading to a fight between these rivals. David breaks up the fight and sees it as proof they're not working as a team. At Eric's prodding, he tells the other players about The Wave.
David has walked Laurie to school since they were sophomores. The next morning, he is enthusiastic as he describes how The Wave will help the football team. Laurie isn't as sure and asks about his seeking help in Calculus. David doesn't want to ask his classmates or else they'll know he's struggling; Laurie suggests getting Amy's help.
In History class, Ben Ross starts by passing out Wave membership cards. Those with a red X are monitors, making sure all members of The Wave obey the rules. He also introduces a new slogan: STRENGTH THROUGH ACTION. Mr. Ross explains that discipline and community are useless without action that achieves a goal. Laurie finds all of this creepy, but decides to stay quiet. Mr. Ross also stresses an end to competition within the group, that they all work towards the same ends. He then reveals the first action for The Wave: recruitment of new members. David and Eric both feel vindicated in already talking to the football team about The Wave. Mr. Ross is ready to move on to other class matters but George Snyder, Robert Billings, and others spontaneously express joy and pride about being in The Wave. After some salutes and slogan chanting, Ben Ross realizes The Wave is taking on a life of its own.
At lunch, Robert is invited by David to join other Wave members at a table. Laurie asks if anyone feels weird about The Wave, but both Amy and Brad express relief at the end to popularity contests through this new sense of equality and community. As one of the chosen monitors, Brian jokes about reporting Laurie. David says she isn't breaking any rules but Robert points out that if she is against The Wave it would be breaking the rules because it defies the community. Laurie resists answering Robert as he's now become accepted by others and thinks that's a positive development for him.
Ben Ross is not sure what to make of The Wave. Recruitment is a success, and his history class has become packed. The class is doing well and not falling behind, but the students now rely more on rote memorization and short answers rather than critical thinking which requires longer answers. Biology teacher and football coach Norm Schiller has thanked Ben for The Wave, as it seems to be helping the team as they prepare against Clarkstown. Students give him different answers for why they like The Wave: that it's something new, that it's democratic, even that they enjoy the increased discipline.
Meanwhile, Laurie and the staff of the Grapevine are having difficulty coming up with material for the next issue. When The Wave is mentioned, Laurie hesitates at first but agrees, asking the staff to gather the opinions of other students about this phenomenon. That night, Laurie's mother Midge talks to her: she ran into Elaine Billings, ecstatic about the changes in her son Robert, who she had been previously deeply concerned over. Laurie's Mom isn't as sure that what's happening to Robert is a good thing, as it follows the pattern of cults and the kinds of people attracted to them. Asked about the Wave Rally this coming Friday afternoon, Laurie tells her it's jut a football pep rally with a different name. Mrs. Saunders is surprised that none of this concerns Laurie, who thinks it's just a fad. Alone, Laurie isn't as set in her convictions and is indeed worried.
While Ben is drinking coffee in the teacher's lounge, he gets a message that Principal Owens wants to see him. He's pretty sure he's in trouble. But he has to admit, it would be a bit of a relief if Principal Owens told him to shut down The Wave. On the other hand, what would happen to Robert Billings? Thanks to The Wave, Robert has gone from class loser to an accepted member of The Wave community. Plus, he's finally doing well in his classes. If The Wave were to end, would Robert go back to the way he was before?
Ben is also worried that if The Wave were to shut down now, his students wouldn't have learned what he wanted them to learn from it. The whole thing would have been for nothing. When Ben gets to Principal Owens' office, he's a little surprised. He thought Owens would be angry, but he seems to be smiling and happy. What gives?
Not so fast. First, he asks Ben to explain The Wave. Ben explains that it's an experiment to help students understand what happened in Nazi Germany. Now Owens looks a little less happy. Owens is not psyched about the chanting and the salute. He warns Ben to be really careful with this. Ben promises that he's completely in control, but Owens wants to be sure that a mob of angry parents isn't going to show up asking why their kids are joining some weird cult. Again, Ben promises him that won't happen. And since Ben has never let him down before, Principal Owens is going to let him continue with the experiment.
At Gordon High School, history teacher Ben Ross is teaching his class about World War II and the Holocaust. His students are upset by the footage of concentration camps and question why the German people allowed this to happen, insisting they wouldn't be so easily duped. Ben Ross considers this and plans an experiment: the next day, he starts to indoctrinate the class using the slogan STRENGTH THROUGH DISCIPLINE. The class reacts well to this, embracing the sense of empowerment it gives them, and they continue their newly disciplined behavior into a second day of class, surprising Ross. He decides to take the experiment further and create a group, The Wave, adding two more slogans --STRENGTH THROUGH COMMUNITY and STRENGTH THROUGH ACTION - which leads to further rules of conduct and an organizational structure. In this way, The Wave takes on a life of its own. While Laurie Saunders is wary of The Wave and its effect on others, her friends are more willing to promote this movement. Her friend Amy is made a monitor, as has school outcast, Robert Billings. Laurie's boyfriend David Collins, introduces the football team to The Wave in the hopes of unifying the team in their game against Clarkstown that weekend.
In the following days, The Wave quickly grows in popularity, but soon its dark side becomes apparent. Laurie receives a letter for the paper detailing how members try to recruit others with bullying. At a football rally that was unofficially christened a Wave Rally, a boy is harassed and called a "dirty Jew". That weekend, the football team is unable to win against Clarkstown, as their newfound drive does not compensate for a lack of proper training and planning. David is confused by this turn of events, while Laurie and her staff on The Grapevine plan a special issue of the paper devoted exclusively to The Wave and the negative impact it has had on the school.
Monday morning, Laurie warns Amy before the newspaper hits the campus. Amy continues to stand up for The Wave, accusing Laurie of jealousy as The Wave gets rid of the social hierarchies from which Laurie benefits. The issue of The Grapevine causes a sensation on campus, and members of The Wave - led by Robert Billings - decide to confront Laurie on her betrayal. David is coerced into facing Laurie on their behalf, but when she continues to stand by her position, he grows angry and becomes violent with his girlfriend. This shocks him into realizing that The Wave has indeed gone too far. Now united in the belief that The Wave must be stopped, Laurie and David go to the home of the Rosses in order to convince Ben Ross to end his experiment. He tells them he will do exactly that, but that they must trust his moves the next day.
The following day, Ross announces a new rally that afternoon for Wave members only: the leader of this movement, which Ross claims is taking place in schools across the nation, will be revealed at the event. Laurie and David protest, but are sent to the principal's office. Afterwards, they decide to sneak into the rally. Before the gathered Wave members, Ross shows historical footage of Hitler and young Germans of the Nazi party. He makes clear that the assembled Wave believers would have made good Nazis, despite their protests earlier to the contrary, then apologizes for his own role in the experiment. The Wave is dissolved, and broken friendships are mended. Robert Billings is especially shattered, but Ross approaches him in the hope of salvaging the self-respect the young man found within the group.