It was an emotion-filled night for Danieka Novak.
She logged on to another Zoom video call Wednesday evening with her Longfellow kindergarten class, not knowing what the conversation would bring.
They’re kindergartners, so the topics can be endless. Kids say the darndest things, right?
But a marriage proposal? She had no idea.
Novak, in her fourth year teaching for Mitchell School District, has been heartbroken for the past two months. Classrooms are closed due to a world-changing pandemic, and teachers have been forced to connect with their students digitally.
Trey Heckenlaible, Novak’s boyfriend for more than a year, has seen her light up with joy for the minutes her students jump on a Zoom call to talk about anything and everything.
Now, it’s not every day a news tip shows up at your doorstep — but earlier this week, Heckenlaible rang my doorbell to ask whether my daughter, Grace, a kindergartener in Novak’s class, would help with the marriage proposal.
When he explained his plan, we of course obliged. He had too good of an idea, but I also told him I really hoped to share their story of good news.
A little more than a year ago, on March 29, 2019, Heckenlaible was helping serve pizza during the annual Longfellow bingo night. That’s when he saw Novak. Heckenlaible, whose mother, Lisa, is the school’s principal, later asked his mom about “that girl.”
Lisa Heckenlaible first met Novak a few years earlier during a job fair in Sioux Falls. Novak, a Wagner native and Mount Marty College graduate, got an interview and job offer to teach elementary school in Mitchell. She taught third grade her first two years and fourth her third.
“She’s a really nice girl,” Novak said, retelling the story of how Lisa Heckenlaible described her now-future daughter-in-law. “The next day, Trey added me on Facebook. Then we started talking and I guess the rest is history.”
As their relationship progressed in the past year, Novak was teaching her first class of kindergartners. More than seven months of the school year passed and suddenly, in-person school was shut off like a water faucet.
Zoom calls were really the best way to see the kids’ faces. So in April, Heckenlaible started putting a plan together.
“I wanted her kids involved, and that’s when I decided to do it over a Zoom call,” he said. “She tells me how much she misses her kids, so I decided that was the best way to go.”
So the day he showed up at my house, he asked whether Grace would sort-of lead the discussion to get all the kids to help with the proposal. He handed her a large piece of tagboard with the word “Will” on it. Four other families would each have a sign with the words “You,” “Me” and question mark symbols.
On Wednesday night, at about 7:15 p.m., Grace and the rest of the class did their parts.
“Can you unscramble our sentence?”
“Everybody hold up your sign! … Can you unscramble our sentence?”
Luckily, Lisa Heckenlaible was also on the call. She helped get all the kids to hold up their signs, and Novak began piecing the puzzle together.
The final request was to get Novak to turn around, where her boyfriend was standing holding the word “Marry” and a ring in his pocket.
Friday, recalling the Zoom call, Trey laughs about how he caught her so off guard.
“Everything just seemed like a normal night to her,” he said. “She definitely didn’t see it coming.”
Novak laughs that not all families were in on the secret.
“They were oblivious to the fact that Trey was down on one knee,” she said.
They kissed, they hugged and the kids and families cheered.
What a night of emotions and memories. That’s why it’s understandable that Novak shed a few tears trying to describe the whole picture that unfolded on a Zoom call.
“When we left on March 13, I never knew that I would never get to say goodbye,” she said of the school closures. “I guess only us fellow teachers know what we’re all going through. And this will probably be the hardest year of my career. I miss them all so much. And I hope they know I miss and love them from afar.
“So I guess after this happened, I told Trey, that this class already had a special place in my heart. And now they will always and forever have an even more special place in my heart.”