Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.
Gene reflects on the past as he revisits his old boarding school for the first time since he graduated. He understands now that his school years were dogged by fear—of being judged, being different, getting into trouble, and failing. The perception that he no longer feels these fears allows him to recognize them: When living in an atmosphere permeated by fear, anxiety dominates every waking moment and becomes normal. Therefore, he concludes he must have changed in the interim.
Everything at Devon slowly changed and slowly harmonized with what had gone before. So it was logical to hope that since the buildings … could achieve this, I could achieve, perhaps unknowingly already had achieved, this growth and harmony myself.
While visiting his old boarding school for the first time in fifteen years, Gene hopes that, like the school itself, he has grown into a better version of himself during those intervening years. As he proceeds to reveal to the reader the events that took place when he was in school, the reader gets to decide how he has changed, if at all. Gene seems to consider growth to be equivalent to harmony—being mature, to him, equates to being happy with oneself and in one’s skin.
With Leper it was always a fight, a hard fight to win when you were seventeen years old and lived in a keyed-up, competing school, to avoiding making fun of him. But as I had gotten to know him better this fight had been easier to win.
Gene reflects on the difficulties of reining in his own worst inclinations to join in the ridicule of a classmate. Leper was singled out as for his gentle, solitary pursuits of his interests in nature, indifferent to the mainstream interests of his fellow students. This made him an obvious target for teasing, if not bullying. Here, Gene acknowledges his own position as one of the competitive boys, but because he grows to know and like Leper, he can resist the tendency to give Leper a hard time just for being different. Gene discovers his capacity for true kindness to Leper as he loses the need to ridicule others which comes from insecurity.
“Everything has to evolve or else it perishes…. You know what? I’m almost glad this war came along. It’s like a test, isn’t it, and only the things and the people who’ve been evolving the right way survive.”
Having realized that his skiing abilities will help him as a soldier, Leper expresses his eagerness to join the war effort. His ability to recognize the vital importance of evolving “the right way” becomes poignant when tested and found to be insufficient to survive military service. Leper learns that his normal life has not prepared him for anything he deals with during his training. As he cannot adapt as necessary, he suffers a breakdown.
Over my cot I had long ago taped pictures which together amounted to a barefaced lie about my background…. But by now I no longer needed this vivid false identity; now I was acquiring, I felt, a sense of my own real authority and worth…. I was growing up.
Gene reveals that, as one of the few boys at Devon from the south, he originally invented a background that he believed was more interesting than his reality, but now he no longer needs this false version of his life. He understands that he established his own real identity with experiences and actions. Similarly, he no longer wants to mislead people, even about unpleasant things. Right after this description, Gene finds the courage to reveal to his friends the unpleasant truth about Leper’s army experience.