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Genuine happiness in front of a classroom

By Michelle Kosinski, NBC News correspondent

There's so much going on in this country right now, that stories like this tend to easily get lost in the stress and strain of the bigger picture.

But that's also what makes these things such a pure pleasure to find, and put together sometimes...a small escape, some good news, one person... whose story might otherwise escape notice in a week like we've had.

A reminder that a single person still makes a difference. Often, a quiet difference-- never asking for any recognition. But that difference-- that inspiration-- has a tendency to spread. And these are the good people who collectively make our country great.

Chimaobi Amutah's mother didn't come from this country, she survived civil war in Nigeria and emigrated to New Jersey, where she supported and raised her four children by herself.

Because education was not easily accessible in her homeland, that is what she relentlessly instilled in her children. That the one sure way to raise yourself above the gang violence and drugs surrounding them, was to grasp an education with both hands, and not let go. Not always so easy for Chimaobi (pronounced Chi-MO-bee) and his siblings, when other young teens were making quick cash selling cocaine on the streets.

At one point, he says, he held drugs for a friend of his, who then tried to persuade Chimaobi to sell it. He thought about it, but couldn't bring himself to do it.

Chimaobi knew he was smart and could get good grades if he wanted to, and he kept at it, even as one by one, EVERY single one of his group of friends ended up in jail for one thing or another. Not one graduated from high school. Only him. And all three of his siblings.

So how did he rise above all that, make it not only through high school, but to Harvard?

He credits his mother's persistence, admitting with a laugh to harboring a longstanding outright fear of her, but also a single incident at his high school: Ivy League night. Not a well-attended event by any means at that time, by students OR colleges, at Trenton High. But Chimaobi's teachers convinced him to go, and that was it.

He had no idea it would be even remotely possible to get THAT kind of an education. No way of knowing he could afford it, or that those schools would ever be interested in a kid like him.

But that one night, and those teachers, changed his life. Again, someone offered encouragement. Told him that yes, it WAS possible.

He still vividly remembers the day he came home from school, walking past the usual dealers on the gritty corners, to see three large envelopes waiting at his front door. Acceptances. Yale. Princeton. Harvard. His mom still can't help but get a little loud when she remembers her pride that day. She too, until then did not fully believe that such dreams could come true for her son.

Chimaobi knew this was a key to everything-- a top education, and very likely a great-paying job one day. He thought maybe becoming an entertainment lawyer would set him up pretty well.

What makes his story more remarkable is that what he ultimately chose to do as soon as he graduated: he headed straight for one of the most economically-challenged places in the country. From Cambridge, Massachusetts-- to rural Belzoni, Mississippi. Where there is no bookstore in his entire county, and where funding for education is hard to come by. The state has ranked at the bottom of per-student spending in the United States.

Chimaobi decided to be a teacher, in a place where students most need them. And role-models. And dreams.

A devout practitioner of the "tough love" he learned so well growing up, he does not try to act like a kid or talk like a kid to win their friendship. He earns their respect by showing them that despite coming from a place just as poor, he has educated himself to exude nothing but dignity and a quiet, steady thoughtfulness about the world around him. His background didn't make him tough or bitter or braggadocious about it; it made him stronger and more understanding.

He talks, with a frequent enormous laugh, about how his students try to figure him out. "Like, one of my students said-- 'Mr. Amutah, you smart...but, you ghetto!'" He erupts in more laughter. "And I was like, I didn't know how to interpret it at first, but I said, yeah, I'm from a certain environment that's categorized as a ghetto. But I mean, there are millions of intelligent people in neighborhoods like this!"

His students are silent and attentive in his class. Afraid, too, that he might fail them-- as he did not hesitate to do to many of his high school kids last year. Some are now getting better scores on tests than they imagined possible. And THAT makes Chimaobi light up with pride.

"The difference between me and a lot of my friends I grew up with, was motivation-- who was at home, checking homework, pushing you to do better.. and threatening you when you needed to be threatened!" He laughs again, thinking of his equally-passionate mother. "That stuff-- it makes a difference! So, I'm trying to be that for some of them. Just somebody to support them and encourage them consistently. Somebody to set high expectations for them."
Then, "I love teaching."

The 23-year-old has decided the classroom is where he wants to stay. He's earning his Master's through the University of Mississippi Teachers' Corps. His siblings are all scholars as well, and his mother Abigail just earned a college degree of her own. She couldn't be more proud, seeing her son reach out to get kids excited about learning. Was this the American dream she'd imagined for him? Not exactly at first, but now, her heart understands.

"Material possessions are nice on some level, but they don't make you," Chimaobi says. "And they don't create happiness. I feel fulfillment. And genuine happiness, seeing them grow and develop."

One guy, who stuck with his big dream, to help other young people dream big. Is this news you need to know? No. But will it feel good to hear... I think so.