Credit: Michael Becker/FOX

Idol fans weren’t the only ones surprised and disappointed by Wednesday’s elimination of early favorite Alexis Grace. “I was like, ‘Is this a bad dream? What’s going on?'” the 21-year-old Memphis native told PEOPLE Thursday. “It’s hard. I’m obviously disappointed.”

The news is particularly hard to swallow as it means she just missed making the cut for this summer’s Idol tour. “I’d set a goal for myself to make tour,” says Grace. “But everybody has their times where they don’t do exactly what they want to in life, and it only gives them more encouragement to work harder. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

For a brief moment on Wednesday’s show, it seemed Grace might get a reprieve with the new “judges save” rule, but after she forgot some words to “Jolene” and cracked a couple notes, judge Simon Cowell proclaimed the performance “wasn’t good enough” for Grace to stick around. “If I’d remembered the words and been more in control of it, that might’ve helped,” Grace says. “But it’s early in the game and I could see why they would want to save it for later. It’s better television.”

Grace says she had grown particularly close to fellow Idol Megan Joy, who’s also a young mom, and that the two had joked that if they’d both made the tour, Grace’s daughter Ryan, 2, and Joy’s son Ryder, also 2, would become “boyfriend and girlfriend.” “But they still can,” says Grace with a laugh, “because Megan and I said we’re going to buy condos on the beach somewhere right next to each other so they can go over and play with each other all the time.”

Grace’s biggest challenge on Idol was being away from her daughter, even though she called her every day so the two could sing the Barney song together. She’s looking forward to their reunion next Tuesday, when she returns to Memphis after a round of press in New York City. “I’m going go home and watch Elmo with her,” Grace says. “We’re going to go play with the toys in her bedroom. That’s the first thing I’m doing, and I can’t wait.”

When Ryan gets older, Grace — who is engaged to Ryan’s father but so far has not set a wedding date — hopes her daughter will learn from mom’s Idol experience. “It’ll show her that you’ve got to work hard for what you want and never give up,” says Grace, who plans to eventually record a blues/soul album and hopefully tour on her own. “Because of this, I think I’m going to have a really great daughter. I feel very proud.” — Shawna Malcom

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Michael Becker/FOX