We knew it was a gamble, my husband and I. Our son had been attending a local community college for a couple of years, generating mediocre grades because, as he put, “it wasn’t a real college.” He also had changed his major twice, and he seemed more interested in hanging out with his non-college-bound friends than he was studying.

We decided he needed a radical incentive, something to light a fire under his nonchalant, millennial ass. We offered one year at a four-year residential university, a “real” college, with the option to continue provided the grades were decent (but we would have settled for average). This proverbial “carrot” approach offered something he wanted (to live away from home) with something we wanted (a college degree). It seemed like a win-win.

With some tears and trepidation we left him, along with his new dorm linens, at a university about four hours away for fall semester. He did okay that semester, except for failing chemistry, and if we’re being honest, we probably would fail chemistry, too. His hopes were high for the next semester; tutors and study groups would be procured and utilized.

We’re not sure what exactly happened during the spring term, but in March he called in tears asking if he could just come home because he wasn’t going to make it. Of course, it was a week after the last date to withdraw, so being the stoic baby boomers we are, we urged him to continue to try which he ignored and spent the last month-and-a-half of school skipping classes, doing who-knows-what.

No experience is ever wasted, though hopefully few of them have a price tag of over $20,000. In hindsight, we finally “saw” him for who he was, not who we wanted him to be. We assumed, being our spawn, that he would naturally have a desire for book-learning and would graduate from college. We ignored the obvious signs in front of us: the lack of desire to read, the preference for socializing over everything else. We were blinded to reality by our own plans for our children.

As a college instructor, I particularly had a difficult time processing this new reality. Why didn’t he apply himself? Why didn’t he put in more time? How would this snafu ever be fixed? As I tried to process this disappointment, we entered the summer season of business BBQs and get-togethers, the kind of socializing you do with people you barely know where the most common question asked is, “So, what are your kids doing?”

I told them, “Our son just flunked out of college, and we’re not sure what he’s going to do.” And then came the surprising response. A number of these business professionals confessed, “I flunked out, too, after my first year. I worked some, and later I went back.” Or sometimes they never went back.  If flunking out of college wasn’t their personal experience, they had a child or a family member who flunked out.

I had just joined the ranks of an army of people who were related to someone who flunked out of college yet managed to have a successful life. My perception of what was needed to be successful stretched open to accommodate a wider worldview, much like a balloon expands as it fills with air. I breathed in that air of hope, and I began to believe that flunking out of college might not be the worst thing that could happen. In fact, it might be okay.

Over a year later, he’s employed full-time with benefits, and he seems happy. As part of his job, he talks on the phone to people a lot (which he loves), and no surprise, they usually respond positively to him. He hasn’t ruled out going back to school, though he knows this time it will be on his nickel.

We’re still paying off that $20,000. An expensive lesson, but one I don’t think we could have learned any other way. Given our generation’s mindset and values, we could not (or would not) see other options besides college. There are many other possibilities besides spending $20,000 a year.

My son flunked out of college, and I’m still okay. You’ll be okay, too.