They sit at a cafeteria table, gossiping and snacking during a school field trip.
"Have you seen him? Has he gained the weight back?" one girl asks.
"Yeah, he looked so good," replies another from across the table. "His cheeks filled in."
It is no casual lunchtime conversation. The teenager they are talking about is a recovering methamphetamine addict -- and so are several of the teenagers at the table, all of them students who attend alternative high schools in the St. Paul area and who are trying to get their lives back on track.
The methamphetamine epidemic has often been associated with drug labs hidden away in the countryside, but today's users frequently defy that image, whether they are urban professionals or suburban homemakers.
In Minnesota, many young people and experts who monitor drug abuse agree that meth is steadily replacing marijuana as the teenage drug of choice.
"Meth is the thing -- it's what everybody wants to do," said Anthony, a 17-year-old student at Sobriety High School in St. Paul who first tried meth at 13 and has been in recovery since he overdosed last summer. He and other students from alternative learning programs were allowed to speak on the condition that their last names not be used.
While statistics show that meth use among teenagers and middle-school students has been level for the past few years, experts caution that those numbers can be deceiving, because meth seems to spread in pockets, leaving some regions or populations relatively untouched while others are devastated.
"Meth is an oddball in that way," said Caleb Banta-Green, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. "You never know where it's going to hit."
But when it does, it often hits hard -- with few states evading meth's reach.
In Nebraska, for instance, two 20-year-olds who were high on meth froze to death after getting lost in a snowstorm in January. And in Oregon, officials recently reported that meth is now second only to marijuana -- surpassing alcohol -- as the drug that sends the most teenagers to treatment.
Nebraska and Oregon are among the nearly two dozen states that have entrenched meth problems, most of them in the West and Midwest, according to state-by-state advisories the Drug Enforcement Administration released this year. And the DEA says meth is a growing concern in sections of nearly every other state.
"It's here and it's ravaging our kids," said Dave Ettesvold, a drug counselor at two high schools in the St. Paul area, including Harmony Alternative Learning Center in Maplewood.
Already in Minnesota, a fifth of addicts who entered drug treatment for meth use last year were younger than 18, according to Carol Falkowski, a researcher at the nonprofit Hazelden Foundation who tracks the state's drug trends for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Another recent state survey found that about a quarter of girls and a fifth of boys in Minnesota's alternative learning schools had used meth at least once in the last year. Ten percent had used it 10 times or more.
How teenagers get methamphetamine varies. Sometimes, they say, friends or relatives -- even a parent -- get them into it. Some have sold meth to pay for their own habit. And a few say they eventually learned how to make the drug themselves.
Kristin, a 17-year-old student at Harmony, tried meth a little more than a year ago while smoking pot in a friend's basement, as the friend's parents slept upstairs.
"Have you ever tried 'crystal'?" her friend asked, bringing out crystal methamphetamine and a small glass pipe that some refer to as a "bubble."
She had not tried it, but she told her friends otherwise: "I said, 'Yeah' and just went along with it."
She said the reasons teenagers are attracted to meth are many, including a wish to lose weight, especially for girls, and the euphoric feeling users get when they first take the drug -- a feeling that ends up causing them more trouble than it is worth, she added.
Many other teenagers say they also like the long-lasting effects, including an "in control" feeling and the ability to focus and stay up for hours.
"I just felt invincible," said Summers, a 15-year-old student at Harmony, who got her first hit of meth at 13 from a friend's drug-dealing older brother. "You feel like you're better or stronger than everybody."
Like Kristin, she smoked the drug, which also can be injected, snorted or taken orally. But she quickly became so hooked that "if it fell on the chair, I'd lick it off the chair."
It did not take long for the effects -- emotional and physical -- to turn ugly.
"I'd look in the mirror, and my face would look yellow. I'd say, 'I gotta stop for a while or my mom will find out,' " Summers said, recalling how her mom cried when she finally figured out what was going on. Her mother had asked if she was doing meth but, until she was in rehab, Summers never admitted it.
Indeed, the physical effects of methamphetamine use are often jarring -- from sunken eyes and bone-thin frames to teeth that turn gray and deteriorate.
One juvenile court counselor still carries teeth that a young meth user gave to her to show other teens who might be considering trying the drug. "Her teeth literally fell out on my desk when she was talking to me one day," said Beverly Roche, who was working with the juvenile drug court in Minnesota's Dodge County, southeast of the Twin Cities, at the time. She's now helping to establish a juvenile drug court with programs aimed at rehabilitating young people who use meth and other drugs in Chisago County, north of St. Paul.
Changes in behavior also are very common, with many meth users becoming edgy, aggressive and paranoid.
Anthony, the 17-year-old from Sobriety High, spent so much time high on meth and sitting by his bedroom window -- afraid the police or someone else was out to get him -- that friends started calling him "Garfield," a reference to the stuffed toy version of the cartoon cat that people stick on windows with suction cups.
Bettylu, an 18-year-old student at Harmony, was scared into quitting the drug after watching her older, meth-using sister become violent. She said the sister also had trouble caring for her young child.
"If you keep using it, there will be no responsibility left," Bettylu said.
Many Minnesotans are pinning their hopes on a proposed law that would make it difficult for anyone to buy large quantities of cold medicine that contains pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient in meth. A few states, including Oklahoma and Illinois, have already passed such laws.
Spencer, a 15-year-old from St. Paul who is in rehab for meth and cocaine use, thinks the proposal would be a good start. But as one who has relapsed and returned to drug use several times in his short life, he knows how tough it can be to battle meth.
"It's going to be hard to get rid of it," he said, shaking his head. "Really hard."