Sports analogies abounded. A perfect parabola, for instance, was like a sky-hook by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "Calculus Does Not Have To Be Made Easy -- It Is Easy Already," read a banner Escalante kept in his classroom.
In 1991, he packed up his bag of tricks and quit Garfield, saying he was fed up with faculty politics and petty jealousies.
He headed to Hiram Johnson High with the intention of testing his methods in a new environment.
But in seven years there, he never had more than about 14 calculus students a year and a 75% pass rate, a record he blamed on administrative turnover and cultural differences.
At Garfield, where the pass rate was above 90% when he left, his success was aided by a supportive principal, Henry Gradillas, and talented colleagues, including award-winning calculus teacher Ben Jimenez.
Return to Bolivia
Thirty-five years after leaving Bolivia for his journey into teaching fame, Escalante went home.
He settled with his wife in her hometown of Cochabamba and became a part-time mathematics professor at the Universidad del Valle, and was still teaching calculus in Bolivia in 2008.
He returned to the United States frequently to visit his son and give motivational speeches.
He made his last trip to the U.S. to seek treatment for the cancer that had left him unable to walk or speak above a whisper.
This month, as he gave himself over to a Reno clinic's regimen of pills, teas and ointments, many of his former students gathered at Garfield to raise money.
Unpopular with fellow teachers, he won few major teaching awards in the United States. He liked to be judged by his results, a concept still resisted by the majority of his profession.
As he faced death, it was still the results that mattered to him -- the young minds he held captive three decades ago who today are engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and administrators.
"I had many opportunities in this country, but the best I found in East L.A.," he said in one of his last interviews. "I am proudest of my brilliant students."
Escalante is survived by his wife, his sons and six grandchildren.
Times staff writer Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.