Tears of a Tiger is the first book in Sharon Draper's Hazelwood High trilogy. The novel begins with a brief newspaper article about a fiery automobile accident in which one Hazelwood High student, Robert Washington, was killed. The article also notes that Andrew (Andy) Jackson was injured in the wreck and that he had been drinking and driving. The next chapter consists of a flashback locker-room conversation between Andy Jackson and Robbie Washington from the night of the accident. The boys are excited about the basketball game that they just completed and discuss their plans for after the game. Andy mentions his girlfriend Keisha to Robbie and Gerald, another Hazelwood High student, and then the boys talk about the beer that they have chilling in Andy's trunk. Gerald declines to go with the boys, citing his abusive stepfather's strict rules. After the crash, the Hazelwood High community struggles to cope with Robbie's seemingly senseless death. Keisha, Andy's girlfriend, calls her friend Rhonda to let her know that Robbie died in the crash. Andy struggles through his statement to police and explains that he and the other boys had been drinking, causing Andy to lose control of his car and crash it. Andy, B.J., and Tyrone were able to get out of the car, but Robbie, who was riding in the front passenger seat, was trapped inside and burned to death. Andy cannot get the image of his dying friend out of his head, and B.J.'s prayer in the next chapter demonstrates that he cannot sleep or find any meaning in the horrific accident.
When Andy returns to school, he talks to his basketball coach and expresses that he is having an extremely difficult time getting past the accident. He feels gnawing guilt over Robbie's death and cannot understand why his sentence was so light. Coach Ripley tries to encourage Andy by telling him that he, the police, and the judge believe that Andy will correct his behavior and that he had already paid the consequences for his actions. Andy tries to accept that, but the only part of his life that seems to go well during this time is basketball.
About a month after the accident, Andy begins seeing a psychologist named Dr. Carrothers. At first, Andy is reluctant to talk openly with Dr. Carrothers, but his curiosity in meeting an African-American psychologist motivates him to ask questions and to form a tentative bond with the counselor. During his first session, Andy tells Dr. Carrothers that he cannot forgive himself for Robbie's death and that he has no connection with his parents. Andy resents his father's constant working and his inability to be at his basketball games and cannot understand his mother's disdain for coming to his games. He confesses to Dr. Carrothers that his parents do not understand him or appreciate any of his interests.
As the school year progresses, Andy's grades continue to slip. Keisha, his girlfriend, tries to encourage him to turn in assignments, but Andy is apathetic. When Dr. Carrothers questions Andy about his poor grades, Andy expresses his belief that his teachers do not expect him to do well as an African-American male, so he simply does not care about completing their assignments.
Christmas is an especially difficult time for Andy, and even though Keisha tries to lift his spirits, small reminders of Robbie and his parents force Andy to recognize once again that he will never spend time again with Robbie. He later writes a letter of apology to Robbie's parents and includes some of the lasting memories of the good times he shared with Robbie. Writing the letter boosts Andy's spirits for a while, but then a class discussion about Macbeth, murder, and suicide upsets him, and he hurriedly leaves the classroom. At lunch, B.J. and Tyrone convince Andy to go see a school counselor, but she only further discourages Andy by telling him that his depression is a good sign—a sign of healing. As the spring semester progresses, teachers' conversations about Andy...