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Your message here? Ads come to the math quiz.

When a teacher decides to sell space on his calculus tests, most students approve and the media beat a path to his door.

By Ron DonohoContributor / December 22, 2008

The San Diego Union Tribune/ZUMA

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Tom Farber is the kind of guy with whom you wouldn’t mind sharing a hot tub conversation. Silver-haired, fit, and gregarious, he’s telling his tubmate at a condo complex that he is a teacher. Been in the profession 23 years, 17 at Rancho Bernardo High, in a tony suburb of San Diego. As he talks over the noise of jet-propelled bubbles, his story turns to the underfunding of California schools.

This is how Mr. Farber’s 15 minutes of fame – perhaps extended to half an hour – begins.

The chance conversation, with a neighbor who’s a magazine editor, turns to the way Farber is bridging a classroom budget deficit.

Realizing he couldn’t afford all the paper he needed for his calculus tests, he decided to get creative. On Back to School Night, he asked students’ parents if they would sponsor tests. That’s right, pay to put ads at the bottom of the first page.

He collected $270 that night – enough to meet the cost of producing quizzes, tests, and a semester final.

As the two men talk, the neighbor senses there’s a story here. It first appears in San Diego Magazine. The story is picked up by the local NBC-TV affiliate, and followed by an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune. USA Today then puts Farber on its front page. After that, a media maelstrom ensues.

His tale is told on national network news programs – ABC, CBS, Fox, CNN and AP send reporters and cameras to his classroom. Producers get in touch from The Bonnie Hunt Show and Dr. Phil. Canadian TV crews and Japanese newspapers send requests for his time.

Farber estimates he’s fielded more than three dozen such inquiries – and counting. He grants about a dozen interviews. He even takes a day off from school to “do media.”

From the mid-November day the story first appears through the second week of December, he says, he gets two or three calls a day from radio stations. He turns many down, but he does agree to do a program by a fellow educator in Nebraska: Teachers have to support teachers.

“The exposure this has gotten has gone beyond anything I would have believed,” says Farber. He feels stress from holding down two jobs, being a divorced dad to a 19-year-old daughter, and acting as a media figure. “I can’t let this be a distraction to taking care of my kids in the classroom. I’m happy to talk about the ads on the tests. But the message is underfunded schools. As a nation we have to focus on this. We can’t mortgage our future. And as it is, we’re setting kids up for major problems.”

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Along with the media requests, Farber gets messages from about 50 individuals and companies from around the country that want to buy ads. One line of text – the “ad” can be an inspirational quote or a plug for a company – costs $10 on a quiz, $20 on a test, or $30 on the semester final.

Even in the face of high demand, Farber keeps his pricing structure intact. He estimates he has more than $1,000 in pledges. Some advertisers – an orthodontist, an online retailer of prom dresses – really want to get their products in front of high school consumers.

Most also want to support a teacher who thinks outside the box. Travis King first sees Farber’s story in The San Diego Union-Tribune. The Marine staff sergeant owns a bargain-priced outdoor sports gear company called TNTRide.