Quackenbush was the crew manager, and there was something wrong about him. I didn’t know exactly what it was. In the throng of the winter terms at Devon we were at opposite extremities of the class, and to me there only came the disliked edge of Quackenbush’s reputation.
Gene explains that, while he knows of Quakenbush’s bad reputation, he never really learns what exactly is “wrong” with him. Gene focuses on doing all he can to avoid Quakenbush, and plans only to interact with him as necessary to perform the job of assistant crew manager. Unfortunately, Quackenbush sees in Gene an opportunity to raise his own relative status.
We were going to have to be pitted against each other. It was easy enough now to see why. For Quackenbush had been systematically disliked since he first set foot in Devon, with careless, disinterested insults coming at him from the beginning, voting for and applauding the class leaders through years of attaining nothing he wanted for himself.
Gene reflects on Quakenbush’s experience while at Devon. Something about Quakenbush’s personality set him at a low status in the student body, and he’s been looked down upon throughout his school days. While Gene does not specifically say so, he may well have been one of the class leaders Quackenbush was expected to look up to. Now that Gene is his assistant, and thus by definition his inferior, he and Quackenbush play out the power struggle set by their social structure.
I even sympathized with his trembling, goaded egotism he could no longer contain, the furious arrogance which sprang out now at the mere hint of opposition from someone he had at last found whom he could consider inferior to himself.
Gene explains why Quakenbush lashes out. Despite being in an inferior position, Gene questions Quakenbush’s lack of essential management experience. Quakenbush reacts against this belittling and attacks Gene, whom he believes to be weaker and less athletic. While Gene understands why hatred has built up within Quackenbush, his sympathy doesn’t prevent the two from fighting. Quackenbush’s anger about his relative position makes this conflict seemingly inevitable.