An 'A' in Friendship

updated 06/08/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/08/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On a recent morning at Hampton Township, Pa.'s middle school, math teacher Bethann Dolan fields questions on factors, denominators—and her motorized wheelchair. "Mrs. Dolan, how fast can you go?" a seventh grader asks. "Eight miles an hour," she replies with a wink. "Pretty good, huh?"

That Bethann is back to teaching is a testament to her determination—and a circle of unusually devoted friends. In 2006, when she and her husband, Michael, 38, pulled into the parking lot during a routine shopping trip, she realized she couldn't move her legs to get out of the car; within hours she'd lost sensation from the shoulders down. The diagnosis: transverse myelitis, a rare, sudden-onset neurological disorder that left the sports-loving mom of two a quadriplegic. Unable to write an equation or use a pointer, Bethann feared she'd never teach again. But rather than despair, she turned to a group of friends from church and her suburban Pittsburgh community; they set up a daily rotation and now assist Bethann in class—writing on the blackboard, passing out worksheets and scribbling on kids' papers. They also help her eat and drink and drive her to and from school in her wheelchair-accessible minivan. "This disease took so much away," says Bethann, 39, "but I still have my career because of them." Her pals say they're only too happy to step up. "It's a thrill to help her," says Sherry Graham, her Monday assistant, "because she has a gift."

But the greatest gift has been to students like Angelica Brennen, 11, who, with Bethann's help, has brought her math average up to a 90 from a 79. "She can't write," Angelica says, "but it doesn't make a difference—she's helped me so much."

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