Flying lessons

How finding a rusty pole one childhood summer in Jacksonville launched Mike Guinn into a new life trajectory.

Portrait of Mike Guinn
Photography by Jamie Maldonado

Note: Due to a house fire, nearly all of Mike’s childhood photos documenting parts of his story were destroyed. 

High up in a clear blue sky, I rise, soaring in symphonies, gliding upon an orchestra of freedom. Now as I fly, I take a deep breath and taste the sun, laughing and lemon drops. Wow, clouds smile, soft candy cut upon my face. And this moment becomes a sweetest memory I’ve ever known. Wings don’t fail me now.

📷  Michael Guinn

I grew up in Jacksonville, Texas, straight south down 69, left on East Lincoln, just north of downtown. In those days, neighborhood gossip was our cultural connection, the town newspaper was our social media and football fueled our Friday nights. It still does. Growing up, I loved shooting BB guns, fishing out on Frankston Highway, swimming at Jacksonville Lake and riding go-karts down KEBE Hill. Our house was a tiny two bedroom, one bath — way too small for five boys, two parents, one cat and some very bold mice. Back then y’all, we was po’ — so much so that hand-me-downs and mismatched socks felt like Christmas. I remember when a gallon of gas and going to the movies both cost $1.95. But the number one TV show in our house was still “Good Times“. “Ain’t we lucky we got ’em…” Y’all know what to do. Saturday nights were soul food Saturdays at my Aunt Melvin’s. At the time it was one of the most popular Black owned eateries in East Texas. “Always take pride in what you do,” she’d say. “You never know where it might take you.” Her work ethic and professionalism inspired me. She turns 105 this year.

Mike Guinn tells his true, personal story to a rapt crowd at Out of the Loop 2, November, 2019.📷 Jamie Maldonado

When I was nine years old, my family was burning trash in the backyard one day and someone accidentally threw in a spray paint can and it exploded. I suffered first, second and third degree burns to my arms and face and had to have several skin graphs. I spent three months in Nan Travis Hospital. After that, life was not easy for me. I was a scared, scarred skinny little Black boy in a small town. And if you think teens are cruel now, back then they were brutal. I was already shy, lacked confidence, and I looked down on myself. I didn’t know it at the time, but that situation provided an opportunity for me to want to learn who I truly was.

Mike Guinn takes the stage at Out of the Loop 2.📷 Jamie Maldonado

One hot summer before junior high, I was watching TV with my four brothers. We loved TV, cause that was popcorn and Kool-Aid time. There was this one movie we watched called “The World’s Greatest Athlete” starring Jan-Michael Vincent, Tim Conway and our favorite TV dad, James from “Good Times.” Now in this movie, there was this athletic jungle boy who was being recruited by these, I guess U.S. Olympic scouts. Well, I watched him and I was mesmerized by his agility and stamina because he could do everything — even fly! I watched him use this bamboo stick to catapult himself through the air, and it looked like so much fun.

My heart began to race. My imagination took over, and the next thing I knew, well, I decided I’m going to fly too. So I ran down to Jacksonville landfill and found this long, rusty metal pole and began to try and jump. It was difficult at first, it looked much easier on TV. But I practiced every day and soon I was jumping over everything. You name it, I jumped it. I even jumped over the walls of the Tomato Bowl, which was illegal, but don’t worry about that.

📷 Michael Guinn

My passion and commitment inspired other neighborhood kids, and soon everybody was getting into it. Next thing you know, we held the first ever hood track meet. The excitement, the connection, the exhilaration! It gave us something to do that didn’t involve fighting and stealing. It gave us purpose and goals. Now I didn’t realize this at the time, but God provides a skill that can help us elevate our lives in ways we could never imagine. So I began to imagine that I was in the Olympics winning that gold medal and that everyone looked up to me.

When I arrived at Jacksonville Junior High, it was a new and scary world to me. I was self conscious because of my scars. I was a nerd, scared and poor, and I knew it. I had a huge chip on my shoulder because, well, I knew how everybody felt about me. But I tried to fit in.

📷 Michael Guinn

I tried out for sports. I was too skinny for football, too uncoordinated for basketball and way too slow for the sprints. Then I saw this boy using this long, white pole to jump over this bar, just like I saw on TV. “Coach, can I try that?” “That pole vault? Sure, Guinn, go ahead and give it a try. ” I didn’t know that’s what it was called, but I grabbed the pole and gave it a go. I fell flat on my assets. But after several attempts, I succeeded. I finally found my niche. It was something I could do that gave me purpose, and it literally catapulted me into a world I never thought existed — one that gave my hopes momentum, and my life changed forever.

📷 Michael Guinn

Now there weren’t many African-American pole vaulters in the state at that time, but I made varsity, won regionals, went on to state, and then I got a track scholarship. After college I enlisted in the military.

After completing my service, I came back to East Texas and took a job working at Rusk State Hospital. There, I discovered this gift for gab: deescalation conflict resolution, mediation, empowerment. So I decided to go back to school and enrolled at Stephen F. Austin State University. I graduated with a degree in Social Work and then went on to grad school.

📷 Michael Guinn

In ’96, I moved to Fort Worth — Funky Town as we called it. I took a job working as a child abuse investigator for the state of Texas. That’s where I found the art of poetry and spoken word. Or should I say, that’s where the art of poetry and spoken word found me. One night I came in from a real long day in the field. I was emotionally drained, y’all. I sat down at my desk, put my head down and started crying. And when I lifted my head, I had a pen in my hand and the first thing I wrote was, “What good is my master’s degree if I can’t even master me? What good is my master’s degree, if I can’t even master me?” I’ve been writing ever since.

📷 Michael Guinn

Pole vaulting and creative writing provided a platform for me to elevate my life in ways I never thought existed. Now I’m a published poet. I’m an actor and motivational speaker. And I try to use my skills to help others walk into their purpose. I live in Irving now, but I thank God for my East Texas roots, and every month for the last six years, I travel from North Texas to East Texas to create safe and supportive spaces so that others can walk into their purpose. We call it “getting free” because, High up in a clear blue sky, I still rise. And nothing will stop my flight because, well, I plan on flying forever. So wings don’t fail me now. I’m almost home.

My name is Mike and thank you for letting me share my heart.

Michael Guinn is a nationally renowned spoken word artist, author, poet/actor, events organizer, mental health advocate and activist. He has more than 20 years of stage, film, radio and public speaking experience. In February 2020, Michael won the Irma P Hall Black theater award as featured actor and appears in two Amazon Prime series: “Peter: The Series” and Season 2 of “ Washed.” as well as the films “Battle Line” and “With Love.” Michael is currently cast as lead in the regional film,“God’s Tired.”

Additionally, Michael is a two-time National Poetry Slam finalist, Toronto International Slam champion, four-time Austin International Poetry Festival Slam champion and Great Plains Pile Up Slam champion. He is the director of Mike Guinn Entertainment and founder of Uplift Your Life, a 501c3 which addresses mental health and wellness globally. Michael has been featured in The Tyler Loop’s COVID Stories series and is currently working with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault’s Men’s Story Project.

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